Cisco grilled for allegedly helping Chinese censor, spy on dissidents

Company official downplays allegations, says the only equipment sold to country's public security bureau were routing and switching products.

Internet networking giant Cisco Systems took the hot seat at a Senate Judiciary Human Rights Subcommittee hearing Tuesday for reportedly having a role in the Chinese government's construction of a system for monitoring, censoring and prosecuting online dissidents who speak in favor of democratic values.

Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler said an internal 2002 company document provided to the subcommittee, which gave an overview of China's law enforcement objectives like combating the spiritual movement Falun Gong, "were not Cisco's views then and are not Cisco's views now."

The memo "did not propose on behalf of Cisco that Cisco combat [Internet speech] in any way or adopt the government's goals," he said.

The nature of the 90-page PowerPoint presentation, written by a low-level employee who still works for the firm, has not been accurately described by Web watchdog Shiyu Zhou, Chandler told Human Rights Subcommittee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and ranking member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who grilled him on the issue.

Zhou, who runs a global consortium of anti-censorship providers, testified. Before the hearing, Zhou submitted a second memo from the same Cisco employee -- written in Chinese -- that he said further incriminates the Silicon Valley superpower.

He said the paper is a sales pitch to China's police force explaining how to use Cisco equipment to impinge on citizens' Web use. Chandler downplayed the allegations, saying the only equipment Cisco has sold to China's public security bureau were routing and switching products, which come with basic training and technical support.

Coburn pointed out that of the nearly 1.5 billion global Internet users, 220 million reside in China, double the number reported in 2006 when the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on this topic. "Information is power and that information can become freedom," he said. "It is crucial that [U.S.] companies operate on the side of those seeking freedom rather than oppression."

Durbin also pressed Google and Yahoo executives, who are working on industry standards to uniformly handle requirements to alter their products by foreign governments in which they do business, to act soon. He asked them why the 18-month-old collaboration with other tech firms, human rights groups and academics has not resulted in a finished product.

"I hope within the next 48 hours, we'll have an announcement," he said. Durbin said after the hearing that self-imposed industry guidelines would be a good starting point as he, Coburn, and Judiciary Committee colleagues begin to craft legislation aimed at protecting free speech on the Internet.

"We're not coming down with the heavy hand of Washington. We're asking them to do their part," he said.

A bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., that would ban U.S. technology firms from cooperating with Internet restrictive countries is laudable, Durbin said, "but we have some of our own ideas."

He declined to provide details on a Senate companion bill that is in its "most formative stages." But Durbin did say he wants to "move quickly" on such a measure. Smith has been urging House leaders to bring his bill to the floor before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.