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Nanny and corporate thuggery: Rebecca MacKinnon vs. Cisco

Rebecca MacKinnon: Cisco's actions are 'odious'

Former CNN Beijing bureau chief Rebecca MacKinnon has been organizing a campaign of sorts against American technology companies that she believes are complicit in censorship and other sinister activities on the Chinese Internet.

This writer is very happy to have the Internet at all — I remember the days when it was a struggle to get hold of a copy of Time magazine in Beijing. Whereas in China today today, you have access to almost as much information online as anyone in America, although it is slightly more difficult to find out about certain topics that the Communist Party would rather no one talked about.

If Cisco is blamed for filtering the Chinese Internet, they should also be praised for their role in building it in the first place.

Nonetheless, Rebecca MacKinnon is more idealistic, and believes Cisco is guilty of what she calls "corporate thuggery". Yesterday on her blog she published an email exchange with a Cisco representative about her (and other writers') accusations.

Unfortunately, because of China's meddlesome Internet Nanny, you can't see MacKinnon's website in China without using proxy servers. So I have taken the liberty of posting the whole thing below for comrades residing within the clammy embrace of the Nanny.

If you're outside China, you can see MacKinnon's blog post here: My conversation with Cisco. Otherwise read on below.

You might also want to look at the post titled Another bullshit from a ma-lie-lao-tai mentality on Bingfeng Teahouse, a blog kept by a guy in Shanghai with a nice line in wry commentary.

My conversation with Cisco

Yesterday I got a phone call from Terry Alberstein, Director of Corporate Affairs, Cisco Systems - Asia Pacific. He wanted to clarify a number of things in response to my recent blog posts. We had a long conversation, some of which was "on background" - which means I agreed not to quote him directly, and some of which he agreed after the fact I could put "on the record." By the end of our discussion, all of his personal perspectives stayed off the record (which are less relevant in the greater scheme of things anyway), while everything he told me about Cisco's policies and activities ended up on the record. So here's what I learned:

Alberstein confirmed the authenticity of the Cisco pamphlets promoting police surveillance equipment to the Chinese Public Security Bureau acquired by businessman and author Ethan Gutmann from a Chinese trade show.
Cisco confirms that it does indeed sell networking and telecommunications equipment directly to Public Security and other law enforcement offices all over China.

Alberstein said that Cisco sells to police around the world, and it's not illegal for Cisco to do business with the Chinese police, because the equipment sold is not actually prohibited under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. (Indeed, the Act only prohibits equipment like stun guns, handcuffs and helmets, saying nothing about high-tech communications or networking equipment.)
He reiterated that Cisco is doing nothing against U.S. law. Nor does Cisco believe it's doing anything wrong. Quote: "It's not against the law to sell networking equipment to policing agencies in the PRC." [People's Republic of China]

He emphasized that Cisco does not tailor routers for the Chinese market and does not customize them for purposes of political censorship. What the purchaser does with them is their business. Quote: "The products that Cisco sells in China are the same products we sell in the U.S. We do not custom-tailor any product for any export market."
...but yes, they do provide service and training to their customers.
Following up on our conversation Alberstein emailed me a statement with further clarification of what he would like to have on the record. I've attached it to the end of this post. Let me know what you think.

What do I think?

The fact that Cisco clearly has no qualms about doing business with the Chinese Public Security Bureau is odious. We should change the law to make it illegal for companies like Cisco to sell networking and telecommunications equipment to police agencies in countries like China where the practice of law enforcement includes things like beating up little old ladies who demonstrate peacefully for their religious rights in Tiananmen Square, routine torture of people jailed without due process, and ongoing crackdowns against political dissent of all kinds.

Cisco insists that it does not directly assist with censorship or suppression of free speech in any way. Its routers are global-standard, out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all. OK. But I remain skeptical that the service and training which they provide to their customers (including the Chinese Public Security Bureau and other law enforcement organs) has never involved assistance of clients with configurations and functions that would include political censorship or invasive surveillance. I never got a definitive answer that cleared up my skepticism on this point. My skepticism runs especially deep given that Cisco has no qualms about doing business with Chinese law enforcement, and that CEO John Chambers says in public speeches that Cisco aims to become a "Chinese company." I know for a fact that Chinese companies work closely with Chinese law enforcement on whatever Chinese law enforcement wants. So if you're trying to behave like a Chinese company that's naturally what you will do.
Cisco argues that if they don't do this business, their competitors will. And that will be bad for U.S. jobs.

Well, as I've said before, at the end of the day either we believe that the ideals of "freedom" and "democracy" mean something, and are worth sacrificing short-term profit so that more people around the world have a chance of benefiting from them, or we don't. Cisco clearly doesn't. This is an insult to the thousands of Americans - public servants, men and women in uniform, journalists and others - who risk their lives daily in far-flung corners of the globe for the sake of these ideals. Such business behavior cheapens and sullies these sacrifices, making Americans look like total hypocrites in the eyes of people around the world. They contribute to the reasons why, as a journalist covering protests from Beijing to Seoul to Peshawar, Pakistan, I had to pretend I was Swedish in order to avoid bodily harm.


As one of the world’s leaders in Internet networking technology, Cisco Systems has played an important role in the growth of the Internet globally. Cisco has also played an important role in the development of the Internet in China. Today the Internet in China has over 100 million users, one of the largest Internet populations in the world, and continues to grow rapidly.

The networking hardware and software products that Cisco sells in China are exactly the same as we sell in every market in the world.

And it is our users, not Cisco, that determine the applications that they deploy.

Beyond basic Internet protocol (IP)-based data, voice and video connectivity, Cisco's products provide important network management functions, such as preventing unauthorized access to networks, helping to prevent and mitigate denial of service attacks, and protecting intellectual property. Cisco technologies also address important security functions such as blocking viruses from infecting a network, preventing hackers from stealing credit card numbers, protecting access to confidential medical information, helping Internet service providers administer billing, and allowing public libraries and parents to block young children’s access to particular websites.

Cisco is not in violation of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. The act in question requires export licensing from the U.S. Department of Commerce for specifically designed policing equipment like shotguns, police helmets and handcuffs. Networking products from Cisco and our competitors are not covered by this legislation.

A full list of these items can be found at this Department of Commerce link.

Cisco Systems does [sic - perhaps it was supposed to read 'does not'] participate in the censorship of information by governments. Moreover, Cisco complies with U.S. Government regulations, which prohibit sale of our products to certain destinations; or to users who misuse our products or resell them to prohibited users.

Cisco does sell networking equipment to law enforcement agencies around the world, including in China, in compliance with U.S. Department of Commerce regulations. Our products offer benefits through the networking of computing devices that aid in the effectiveness and timeliness of law enforcement. We also sell our products to many public sector organizations like universities, municipal governments, utilities, etc.

Additionally, the market for networking products in China is highly competitive - we have strong competition in that market from French, Japanese, Canadian, Korean and Chinese competitors.

With respect to Mr. Gutmann and Mr. Wu's allegations published on your site, we reject these claims completely as baseless. We note that Mr. Gutmann has never called Cisco, either with respect to his original claims several years ago, or now, to seek any information or explanation on Cisco's products or services for his magazine articles or forthcoming book. We believe that these claims stem from fundamental misunderstanding about what networking products do and what they are capable of.

With respect to service and training of our products, all Cisco customers globally have access to Cisco training and support. We provide service and support, either directly by Cisco or, in many cases, through systems integration partners for our equipment. However, these services do not entail the day to day management of networks. Our service and post-sales support is designed to replace faulty or defective products, and to provide training for the proper operation and configuration of network hardware.


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