In a move that could have serious consequences for network suppliers, Cisco is being sued by the Human Rights Law Foundation on behalf of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement banned by Beijing.
The lawsuit alleges that senior Cisco executives, including CEO John Chambers, colluded with the Chinese government in the construction of a network monitoring system known as the Golden Shield, which Falun Gong members say has been used to clamp down on their activities.
Among the accusations levelled at Cisco are that the vendor knowingly customised its equipment for Beijing, and collaborated in design, implementation and product support.
The suit claims to cite Cisco marketing material, and draws on the cases of several Falun Gong members who claim they were arrested and physically assaulted by authorities.
Although it has in the past supplied networking equipment to China, and been criticised for this, Cisco has strenuously denied the accusations. In a statement it said it did not "operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customise our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression."
"We sell the same equipment in China that we sell in other nations worldwide in strict compliance with US government regulations," said Cisco.
Earlier this week Network Noise raised the related question of legal action over the current super-injunction ruckus, and asked if it was possible that ISPs and in some circumstances maybe even vendors and resellers could be taken to court for supplying the means for undesirable activity to take place.
The lawsuit will undoubtedly raise similar questions over human rights abuses and the extent to which governments are able to control and monitor their citizens' web use.
After all, all of this activity is carried out online, all that network equipment had to come from within the industry, and someone had to install it.
If the Human Rights Law Foundation wins against Cisco, then I can't see there is much to stop similar actions against other industry firms.
Can the industry realistically be held responsible for what is done with the equipment it sells? We may be about to find out.
This was first published in May 2011