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CISCO: Are Tech Firms Responsible for the Misuse of Their Products?
Thursday, Mar. 6, 2014
In a decision carefully followed by the tech sector and human rights activists, a US court cleared Cisco Systems of any wrong doing for human rights abuses in China. The lawsuit claimed that Cisco was liable for Beijing’s use of Cisco’s networking technology to find, arrest, and torture political activists. The lawsuit was filed under the 1789 Alien Tort Law, which allows foreign nationals redress in US courts for human rights abuses among other claims. The Chinese plaintiffs argued that not only did the technology facilitate the abuses, but Cisco also “actively customized, marketed, and provided support for its monitoring and censorship technologies.” The Maryland court found that Cisco’s technology remained a neutral product with numerous legitimate uses, and did not find evidence that Cisco tailored the technology to facilitate the human rights abuses alleged. Cisco’s General Counsel responded to the decision claiming that both Congress and the Commerce Department permit the sale of the technology in question, and that the technology has “helped billions of people around the world to access information.” With the legal proceeding settled, the questions remains: do technology firms have an obligation beyond compliance to ensure their products are not used to further human rights abuses?
Patrick: There’s no free lunch, not even in technological advancement. The same product that allows billions of people to access information that was before inaccessible also can be used to facilitate human rights abuses. Technology’s moral value is often determined by the intentions of those using it. In this case, it comes down to whether Cisco actively customized and marketed the product to governments for the purpose of tracking and detaining individuals, and unfortunately it’s also a case of he said, she said. It’s unreasonable to expect companies to account for every possible misuse of their products, but active participation in those abuses is unacceptable.
Maryland Court Dismisses Landmark Case (Electronic Frontier)
A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center)