This House believes that Western democracies should openly try to circumvent Internet censorship in oppressive regimes

Internet censorship has been growing precipitously in countries around the world. Freedom House finds that 20 of 47 countries examined have increased their restrictions on internet freedom in 2011 and 2012 against only 14 with increasing freedom.[1] At the same time the methods of control have been becoming more restrictive. Oppressive regimes, here defined as governments that are anti-democratic, that do not afford general civil rights to their citizens, and that do not have a robust respect for the rule of law, have made particular use of new technologies to limit access to parts of the internet.

The role of private firms in this process has come under a great deal of scrutiny. The European Parliament introduced rules to restrict the export of equipment that could be used to censor the internet after it was found that European businesses were providing the technology to Middle Eastern Autocrats. Gamma Group from England supplied Mubarak with a monitoring system, Amesys did the same with Gaddafi, while SpA, an Italian company gave a system to Syria to “intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country”.[2]  Some internet service providers and search engines have also been happy to adopt the stringent laws of autocratic countries, aiding in their censorship of the internet. Google is an example of a company that for a while was happy to comply with China’s rules on Search before pulling out in January 2010.[3]

The appropriate response that Western democratic governments should adopt in response is a hotly debated. Europe attempting to restrict the sale of technology that the censors need is one way of reacting. This debate however focuses on the strategy of actively subverting the censorship policies of these regimes,[4] by enforcing business practices on their companies, by developing and distributing technologies that circumvent the censors, and by funding systems that can help break through the censors. These plans, their effectiveness, and their ethicalness will be discussed in detail.

[1] Kelly, Sanja, and Cook, Sarah, ‘Evolving Tactics of Internet Control and the Push for Greater Freedom’, Freedom on the Net 2012,, pp.1-2

[2] Gallagher, Ryan, ‘European Parliament Takes Step to Restrict Sales of Censorship, Surveillance Tech to Dictators’, Slate, 18 April 2012,


Repressive governments rely on internet censorship to stifle dissent and entrench their power

The internet has become the ultimate platform for dissent within repressive regimes. It breaks the government monopoly on information and communication. As the technology governments have to keep control of their people increases, with access to high-tech surveillance technology, CCTV, wiretaps, etc., the internet has become the only means of people to express their anger and to organize that is not entirely under state control. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia wherein people mobilized to overthrow their dictator, Ben Ali, involved numerous internet tools to share information and coordinate their efforts.[1]

Yet in many countries the internet too is highly censored, with security services investigating online posters and bringing them in for their version of justice, denying access to parts of the internet through state censors, and even ordering internet service providers to abide by strict censorship rules. Yahoo, for example, has bent the knee to China’s severe censorship laws in order to maintain its lucrative market in the country.[2] All of these factors have compounded to make internet dissent risky, and much harder for inquisitive minds to get access to information that is critical of their governments. By dominating the flow of information states have the power to keep their people in check and prevent them from ever posing a threat to their repressive status quo. Only external help in alleviating this censorship could allow activists to organize effectively and perhaps to one day bring about genuine reform and justice to their societies.

[1] Zuckerman, Ethan, ‘The First Twitter Revolution?’, Foreign Policy, 14 January 2011,

[2] Gunther, Marc, ‘Tech execs get grilled over China business’, Fortune, 16 February 2006,


Internet censorship is a problem, but it is hardly the biggest one facing people in these countries.  Internet access is often limited to only the more affluent segments of most poor countries, and it is thus not the best mode of building grass roots movement for reform. This means it is often not even the best platform for dissent, it is notable that the ‘twitter revolution’ may have had some of the organisation through the internet but it was action on the ground through protests that overthrew Ben Ali.[1] At best Western intervention in this case would simply prompt oppressive regimes to utilize more conventional, often more violent methods of quelling dissent.

[1] Ash, Timothy Garton, ‘Tunisia’s revolution isn’t a product of Twitter or WikiLeaks. But they do help’, The Guardian, 19 January 2011,

Western democracies have a moral duty to aid the liberation of oppressed people where it can effectively do so

Western democracies make frequent declarations about the universality of certain rights, such as freedom of speech, or from arbitrary arrest, and that their system of government is the one that broadly speaking offers the most freedom for human development and respect for individuals. They make avowals in the United Nations and other organizations toward the improvement of rights in other countries and the need for reforms. Take for example Obama addressing the UN General assembly in 2012 where he said “we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values; they are universal values.”[1]

By subverting internet censorship in these countries, Western countries take an action that is by and large not hugely costly to them while providing a major platform for the securing of the basic human rights, particularly freedom of speech and expression, they claim are so important. Some potential actions might include banning Western companies from aiding in the construction of surveillance networks, or preventing Western-owned internet service providers from kowtowing to repressive regimes’ censorship demands.[2] Few of these regimes would be able to build and maintain their own ISPs and all the equipment for monitoring and tracking they use.[3] Other actions might include providing software to dissidents that would shield their identities such as Tor.[4] All of these are fairly low cost endeavours. The West has an absolute duty to see these and other projects through so that their inaction ceases to be the tacit condolence of repression it currently is.

[1] Barak Obama, ‘President Obama’s 2012 address to U.N. General Assembly (Full text)’, Washington Post, 25 September 2012,

[2] Gunther, Marc, ‘Tech execs get grilled over China business’, Fortune, 16 February 2006,

[3] Elgin, Ben, and Silver, Vernon, ‘The Surveillance Market and Its Victims’, Bloomberg, 20 December 2011,

[4] Tor, Anonymity Online,


Any country’s first duty is to its own citizens, and this includes countries that promote human rights and freedom abroad. It is difficult to see why pronouncements by a country should morally oblige it to act in a particular way. Rhetoric and high minded pronouncements are the bread and butter of politics, as is not living up to that rhetoric. These countries may act in response to the desire of their own people to act but this is then done not out of a duty to those in other country but to the electorate of their own. 

This would make a powerful statement in favour of freedom of expression and against repression

Western governments pursuing this policy serve to make a clear and emphatic statement about free speech in an arena it has significant power to influence. By taking this action it makes it clear to repressive regimes that their efforts to stifle all dissent will not be tolerated by the international community.[1] The power of regimes to enact their agendas often comes from Western unwillingness to put their money where their mouth is. By funding internet freedom Western countries do this, and in a way that is unambiguously positive in its advocacy of freedom of speech, and that cannot be imputed with alternative agendas by critics.  Even repressive states usually claim officially to value freedom of speech, the People’s Republic of China for example in article 35 of its constitution states “Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”[2] This separates this sort of action from sanctions, direct intervention, and virtually any other kind of international action that are so often condemned as being against a nations ‘sovereignty’. It is purely to enable the people on the ground to have more freedom of information and expression, which aids not only in their aim to free themselves from tyranny, but also abets the West’s efforts to portray itself publicly as a proponent of justice for all, not just those it favours. An example of this is Google’s choice to relocate its servers from mainland China to Hong Kong where there are fewer restrictions, which served as major totemic action in the fight against censorship in China.[3] The emphatic statement thus is an effective means of putting pressure on repressive regimes to reform their censorship policies to evade further international ridicule.

[1] Clinton, Hillary Rodham, ‘Conference on Internet Freedom, Remarks’, U.S. Department of State, 8 December 2011,

[2] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China’, HKHRM

[3] Krazit, Tom, ‘Google moves Chinese search to Hong Kong’, Cnet, 22 March 2010,


As with all messages this will not make a “clear and emphatic statement about free speech” rather it will be a message that is muddied by hypocrisy. Autocratic ‘repressive’ regimes are not the only states to enable some form of censorship on the internet. Britain has a blacklist that is not even run by the government but left to a charity called the Internet Watch Foundation,[1] Iceland is considering banning internet pornography,[2] and western European countries have bans on holocaust denial which apply online as well as offline.[3] The message is then anything but clear. States on the receiving end of such action will rightly accuse their antagonists of the hypocrisy of wanting to control their own internet while not allowing other that they deem to be ‘less free’ to do the same. As a result the statement is if anything one of aggression that may cause retrenchment or even a dangerous reaction.

[1] Davies, C.J., ‘The hidden censors of the internet’, WIRED, 20 May 2009,

[2] Associated Press, ‘Iceland seeks internet pornography ban’,, 25 February 2013,

[3] See the Debatabase debate ‘This House would block access to websites that deny the holocaust

This policy alienates the oppressive regimes and stifles the change that discourse and positive interaction can bring

When a repressive government sees its power directly attacked by Western democracies, and sees them actively trying to subvert their power by empowering dissidents they consider unlawful criminals, it will naturally react badly. These states will be less willing to engage with the West when it plays such an open hand that effectively declares their government, or at least its policies, illegitimate. The most effective way for Western countries to effect change is to engage with repressive regimes and to encourage them to reform their systems. By not directly antagonizing, but instead trading, talking, and generally building ties with countries, Western states can put to full use their massive economic power and political capital to use in nudging regimes toward reform.[1] Burma (Myanmar) faced sanctions for decades yet it was not western policies aimed at attacking the Burmese state that brought change rather it was engagement by ASEAN that brought about an opening up and rapid improvement in freedoms.[2]

Harsh attack begets rigid defence, so the opposite of the change that is desired. It may not be exciting to make deals with and seek to engender incremental change in regimes, but it is the only way to do so absent bloodshed or other significant human suffering. A policy of flouting national laws will demand a negative response from the regimes, leading them to curtail access to the internet for all. Again Burma is an example; The Burmese government cut off all access to the internet in order to prevent the flow of videos and pictures being sent to the outside world through blogs and social media.[3] Subverting government control just brought about a complete black out. Such actions when they occur a major blow to domestic dissidents who, even with heavy censorship, still rely on the internet to organize and share information. This action would serve simply to further impoverish the people of useful tools and knowledge.

[1] Larison, Daniel, ‘Engagement Is Not Appeasement’, The American Conservative, 17 December 2012,

[2] Riady, John, ‘How Asean Engagement Led to Burma Reform’, The Irrawaddy, 5 June 2012,

[3] Tran, Mark, ‘Internet access cut off in Burma’,, 28 September 2007,


Appeasement does not work to increase internet freedom. This has been shown time and time again with China. China has slowly been becoming more and more accepted into the international system; it gained Security Council membership in 1971, joined the WTO in 2000, and held the Olympics in 2008 to celebrate its new role on the world stage. Yet this has not meant they have relaxed internet censorship, far from it, it simply becomes more refined and difficult to detect.[1] Even China’s version of twitter is very fast at censoring posts, despite there being 70,000 messages per minute, almost a third of deletions are completed within 30 minutes.[2] Engagement simply shows that there is no cost to repressive regimes if they continue as they have been. It is therefore enabling them to continue their repression.

[1] Roberts, Eric, ‘Where Censorship in China is Headed’, International Trends concerning Freedom of Information on the Electronic Commons, 2008,

[2] Mozur, Paul, ‘Just How Fast Are China’s Internet Censors? Very.’ China Realtime Report, 8 March 2013,

Circumvention of internet censorship will galvanize more severe, physical repression to compensate its need for security

Oppressive regimes will not be any less oppressive just because Western states seek to undermine their ability to censor the internet. They still rely on fear and force to control and cow the population into submission, and have honed many means of doing so. Technology has aided in doing this, including things like advanced surveillance equipment. But they have always relied heavily on, and have their greatest expertise in, physical repression and the strength of the security services. Even if dissidents are able to access the internet more effectively, the security services will feel it all the more necessary to crack down by more conventional, far less sightly means. At the same time as cutting off the internet in Burma the authorities were engaged in brutal arrests in a crackdown that killed several hundred dissidents, it was this that was more important.[1] Western governments do very little in this policy to actually effect meaningful change, because they do nothing to address the underlying institutions of oppression. Sure the internet is an important tool for organizing protest and opposition to the government, but they will now have to contend with a government with a heightened sense of threat that can only serve to harm them.

[1] AP, ‘UK: Myanmar deaths ‘far greater’ than reported’, CNN, 28 September 2007,


There is only so much that governments can do to oppress their people. Even if this policy did embolden repressive states to ramp up their other means of control, the genie of the internet would be out of the bottle. Without it, dissident groups would find it impossible to ever successfully organize and rebel. It is not a trade-off of one form of oppression for another, but is rather a recognition that Western countries must accept that oppressive regimes will take nasty decisions in reprisal in the short term, while being unable to maintain their firm grip on the public once it is armed with the information and organizational power the internet provides.

It results in Western companies getting kicked out of the countries, damaging significant Western businesses

Western businesses have been seeking entry into external markets, some of which could well be classified as oppressive. These firms have invested significant time, money, and manpower into building up their businesses. By enforcing this policy they will face huge challenges in growth, and even maintaining their place in these countries at all. Internet service providers and other technology firms in particular will suffer. Google and Yahoo have claimed that their efforts in these countries, much like those of Western governments, have helped soften regimes, much more than not engaging at all at least.[1] As Western companies face more and more competition in international markets they, and the Western economies of which they are a part, cannot afford to undermine themselves for the sake of making a political statement, one that would ultimately not necessarily serve to further the cause of freedom anyway.

[1] Gunther, Marc, ‘Tech execs get grilled over China business’, Fortune, 16 February 2006,


Western companies must be governed by codes of ethics. These should not merely stop at the border of their home state. If they are to be ethical actors they must uphold the freedoms they claim to value. If this means not being able to profit massively in markets so be it. Western governments should have little sympathy for firms profiting from and aiding in the oppression of peoples. 


AP, ‘UK: Myanmar deaths ‘far greater’ than reported’, CNN, 28 September 2007,

Ash, Timothy Garton, ‘Tunisia’s revolution isn’t a product of Twitter or WikiLeaks. But they do help’, The Guardian, 19 January 2011,   

Associated Press, ‘Iceland seeks internet pornography ban’,, 25 February 2013,

Clinton, Hillary Rodham, ‘Conference on Internet Freedom, Remarks’, U.S. Department of State, 8 December 2011,

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China’, HKHRM,

Davies, C.J., ‘The hidden censors of the internet’, WIRED, 20 May 2009,

Elgin, Ben, and Silver, Vernon, ‘The Surveillance Market and Its Victims’, Bloomberg, 20 December 2011,

Gallagher, Ryan, ‘European Parliament Takes Step to Restrict Sales of Censorship, Surveillance Tech to Dictators’, Slate, 18 April 2012,

Gunther, Marc, ‘Tech execs get grilled over China business’, Fortune, 16 February 2006,

Kelly, Sanja, and Cook, Sarah, ‘Evolving Tactics of Internet Control and the Push for Greater Freedom’, Freedom on the Net 2012,

Krazit, Tom, ‘Google moves Chinese search to Hong Kong’, Cnet, 22 March 2010,

Larison, Daniel, ‘Engagement Is Not Appeasement’, The American Conservative, 17 December 2012,

Mozur, Paul, ‘Just How Fast Are China’s Internet Censors? Very.’ China Realtime Report, 8 March 2013,

Obama, Barak, ‘President Obama’s 2012 address to U.N. General Assembly (Full text)’, Washington Post, 25 September 2012,

Riady, John, ‘How Asean Engagement Led to Burma Reform’, The Irrawaddy, 5 June 2012,   

Roberts, Eric, ‘Where Censorship in China is Headed’, International Trends concerning Freedom of Information on the Electronic Commons, 2008,

Tor, Anonymity Online,

Zuckerman, Ethan, ‘The First Twitter Revolution?’, Foreign Policy, 14 January 2011,