This House would ban the sale of surveillance technology to non-democratic countries

The sophistication of modern surveillance technology has increased by leaps and bounds in the 21st century. Governments have unprecedented power to watch their citizens, to see almost every aspect of their private and public lives. By use of CCTV, internet censorship and infiltration, wire-taps, and a multitude of other systems, governments have enormous power to control the populace.

Undemocratic regimes have become some of the best customers of Western surveillance tech companies and governments, using the technology to develop a firmer grip on their citizens who might seek to challenge the state. They have exploited the desire of democracies’ desire for profit and influence in order to make themselves even more unassailable to the forces of dissent. Since the start of the civil war in Syria there has been criticism that there have been sales of surveillance equipment to Bashar Al Assad’s regime. France for example has investigated a technology company Qosmos for a project that involved software that allowed the Syrian government to monitor political opponents, often leading to their arrest. Human rights groups allege that this is “complicity in torture”, if so executives could face criminal charges.[1]

A debate has emerged regarding the culpability of democracies in the continued oppression of people abroad. Some states already limit their sales of surveillance technology to non-democratic regimes, such as Canada and to a lesser extent the United States, though no universal bans are prevalent. There have been recent attempts in the US Congress to change this by passing a ‘Global Online Freedom Act’[2] which would prevent such sales to ‘internet restricting countries’, in 2011 this failed to pass but has been reintroduced.[3] Should democracies refuse to sell technology that could be used for ill to regimes abroad, or does it have more to gain from treating them as equally valid governments? This question forms the core of this debate, and is explored in the following arguments.

[1] Lévêque, Thierry, “France investigates tech firm accused of aiding Syria”, Reuters, 26 July 2012,

[2] Rep. Christopher Smith, “H.R. 491: Global Online Freedom Act of 2013”,, 4 February 2013,

[3] Rep. Christopher Smith, “H.R. 3605: Global Online Freedom Act of 2011”,, 8 December 2011,


Advanced surveillance technology prevents dissidents from being able to organize and sue for freedom

High-tech surveillance technology has given repressive governments and police states a new lease on life. Now more than ever they can intrude into every aspect of people’s lives, ensuring that dissent is cowed for fear of the ever present threat of the security services. The vision of Orwell’s 1984 has become a living nightmare for people all over the world. Their power has made it extremely difficult for movements for reform, government accountability, and democracy, which have foundered when faced with these sophisticated security apparatuses (Valentino-Devries, 2011).[1] 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. Thus China blocks access to the internet and to other forms of communications in Tibet to “ensure the absolute security of Tibet’s ideological and cultural realm”. It cuts the Tibetan people off from outside world so as to prevent any rerun of the instability that occurred in 2008, which China blamed on the influence of the Dalai Lama from outside.[2]

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. The surveillance equipment on which these regimes rely is often only available from firms and governments in the democratic world where, by and large, technology is generally far more advanced than in the non-democratic world. Without access to these technologies, the regimes would be far more hard-pressed to keep rigid tabs on their citizens, allowing for the seeds of dissent to take root. Only then can the forces clamouring for democracy hope to be able to organise networks of activists, and to have their views considered by the state.

[1] Valentino-Devries, J. “US Firm Acknowledges Syria Uses its Gear to Block Web”. Wall Street Journal. 29 October 2011,

[2] Human Rights Watch, “China: Attempts to Seal Off Tibet from Outside Information”, 13 July 2012,


Security services have managed to watch over and infiltrate the efforts of dissidents all through history. The visibility and tactics is all that has changed. The internet was never going to just be an arena that helps dissidents in authoritarian regimes but as with other technological advances, such as the telephone both increases communication and provides methods of monitoring that communication. If non-democratic states were to lose access to Western technology, they would either procure comparable replacements from other non-democracies, or they would pursue more traditional forms of surveillance, ones that tend to be more invasive and physically threatening.

Democratic states have an obligation to not bolster repression abroad

It is common for Western democracies to make sweeping statements about the universality of certain rights, and that their system of government is the one that should be most sought after in the world, that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. As when Obama in Cairo proclaimed “These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”[1] They claim to work in the United Nations and other organizations toward the improvement of rights in other countries and clamour about the need for building governments accountability around the world, using their liberal-democratic paradigm as the model. Yet at the same time democratic governments and companies sell technologies to non-democratic allies that are used to systematically abuse the rights of citizens and to entrench the power of those avowedly illegitimate regimes. These hypocrisies read as a litany of shame. A telling example is the Blair government in the United Kingdom selling weapons to an oppressive regime in Indonesia for the sake of political expediency even after proclaiming an ‘ethical foreign policy’.[2]

Even if democracies do not feel it is a defensible position to actively seek to subvert all non-democratic states, and that non-democracies should be considered semi-legitimate on the basis of nations’ right to self-determination, they should still feel morally obliged not to abet those regimes by providing the very tools of oppression on which they rely.[3] To continue dealing in these technologies serves only to make democratic countries’ statements hollow, and the rights they claim to uphold seem less absolute, a risk in itself to freedoms within democracies. Respect for rights begins at home, and actively eroding them elsewhere reduces respect for them by home governments.

[1] Obama, Barack, “Remarks by the President on a new beginning”, Office of the Press Secretary, 4 June 2009,

[2] Burrows, G. “No-Nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade”. New Internationalist. 2002,

[3] Elgin, B. “House Bill May Ban US Surveillance Gear Sales”. Bloomberg. 9 December 2012.


A democracy, like any state, owes its first duty to its citizens, and its national interest is therefore in selling this equipment to help business at home. While it is convenient, perhaps even morally right at times, to stand publicly for the universality of democratic principles, such stands should not be taken at the expense of national security or influence. It should certainly not be considered an obligation. Sweeping policies like this will alienate valuable allies and make it more difficult for democracies to deal with the undemocratic world. With regard to domestic freedoms, states have long held different standards of action when dealing with their own citizens than those of other states, and that has never served to erode domestic freedoms.

The right of Western businesses to sell their services abroad can be curtailed when their actions stand counter to the interests of their home governments

Corporations are private entities that have the right to sell their services and to deal with agents foreign and domestic, including governments. However, this right can be limited when those actions are oppositional to the aims of the home state in which they are incorporated. The sale of surveillance technology to undemocratic regimes stands against the avowed aims of democracies and against their strategic interests in bolstering democracy abroad and maintaining a reputation for fair dealing. For this reason it is perfectly legitimate for governments to ban the corporations within their borders from selling dangerous technologies to foreign governments. Such is already the case with many kinds of strategic technology, especially weapons technology.[1] The EU, for example, bans a range of arms sales to various oppressive states on these grounds,[2] China in particular is an example where it would potentially be very lucrative to overturn the ban.[3] Corporations benefit from the protection of democratic states, as they provide bases of operations that shield their right to property and ensure stability and the rule of law. If corporations wish to benefit from these provisions they must be willing to accept the instructions of the states that house them regarding what can and cannot be sold to foreign powers.

[1] Elgin, B. “House Bill May Ban US Surveillance Gear Sales”. Bloomberg. 9 December 2012.

[2] Banks, M. “Senior MEP Calls for Freeze on Arms Sale to North Africa”. The 7 July 2011.

[3] See the debatabase debate ‘This House believes the European Union should lift its ban on member states selling arms to China’


Corporations are bound to obey the laws of the societies in which they are based, but they are not so constrained in their foreign dealings, in which they are bound instead by foreign laws that are often much more lax. The nature of the international landscape, with its many incompatible and overlapping forms of government and regulatory frameworks, demands that corporations be flexible in order to survive. The constraints put upon the manufacturers of surveillance equipment put forward by this policy will make them less competitive in the international market, which is often the primary market for these businesses. Furthermore, if they feel constrained they may pull up stakes and move their operations abroad to a more accommodating jurisdiction. This would serve to harm domestic jobs and undermine the ability of democratic states to maintain their edge over others in essential surveillance technology development.

This ban would have a powerful signalling effect expressing disapproval of non-democracies' system of government

A ban on the sale of surveillance technology to non-democracies serves ultimately as a statement of disapproval. It shows that the undemocratic regimes cannot be trusted with the ability to spy on their people. This signal has several effects. An example of this international shaming affecting is the international bans on the use of landmines. Various states created a framework, the Ottawa Convention,[1] in which their condemnation pressured nearly every other state, including authoritarian regimes, to follow suit.[2] Domestically it serves to bolster people’s faith in the system of rights they value highly and enshrine in law. They can point to this ban as an example of their government’s desire to make a better world and not to increase repression for the sake of power or profit. In the undemocratic states themselves, the regime leaders will be faced with a significant public relations blow as they come under criticism. This serves to embolden and empower holders of dissenting opinions and to spark pro-democratic discourse. In the international community it makes an emphatic value judgement on the merit of certain systems of government, namely the superiority of democracy and government accountability to the people, principles most non-democracies still pay some form of lip-service to. Overall, this policy boosts the credibility of democracy, while undermining the influence of undemocratic states.

[1] See the debatabase debate ‘This House (as the USA) would sign the Ottawa convention banning landmines’,

[2] Wexler, L. “The International Deployment of Shame, Second-Best Responses, And Norm Entrepreneurship: The Campaign to Ban Landmine and the landmine Ban Treaty”. Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law. 2003.


Is a minor ban really a good signal? The chances are the government will ignore it and those who it is meant to encourage will never hear about it. In the event that the regimes it is aimed at do take not far from weakening them, this policy serves only to alienate them. The lack of respect the policy is clearly aimed to show will galvanize the leaderships in undemocratic regimes to cut off various ties with democratic states, limiting the flow of ideas and democratic principles that natural adhere to activities like international trade. The result is non-democracies will be less willing to talk about reform in the international community because they see their very form of government as under threat by foreign agents seeking to discredit them. Ultimately, a boost in Western moral does little to promote democracy and human rights while a negative signal will result in regimes being more suspicious and obstinate.

Presuming democracy is the only legitimate or worthwhile form of government is both inaccurate and unproductive

As much as the more liberal citizenry of many of the world’s democracies wish to believe otherwise, democracy as a system of government is not the only game in town. In fact, the growth of the strong-state/state-capitalism approach to government has gained much traction in developing countries that witness the incredible rise of China, which will before long be the world’s largest economy, flourish under an undemocratic model.[1] Chinas ruling communist party have legitimacy as a result of its performance and its historical role reunifying the country.[2] Democracies pretending they are the only meaningful or legitimate states only serve to antagonize their non-democratic neighbours. Such antagonism is doubly damaging, considering that all states, democracies included, rely on alliances and deals with other states to guarantee their security and prosperity. This has meant that through history democracies have had to deal with non-democracies as equal partners on the international stage, and this fact is no different today. States cannot always pick and choose their allies, and democracies best serve their citizens by furthering their genuine interests on the world stage. This policy serves as a wedge between democracies and their undemocratic allies that will only weaken their relations to the detriment of both. When the matter comes to surveillance technology, Western states’ unwillingness to share an important technology they are willing to use themselves causes tension between these states. Non-democracies have just as much right to security that surveillance technology can provide as the more advanced states that develop those technologies.

[1] Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. “Is State Capitalism Winning?”. Project Syndicate. 31 December 2012.

[2] Li, Eric X, “The Life of the Party”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013,


Real politick is not the only consideration democracies should entertain when they engage in international relations. Indeed, the Western powers have sought since World War II to develop a system of international justice that recognizes the primacy of peoples’ rights irrespective of where they are born. This principle is constantly compromised as democracies jockey for influence with undemocratic regimes, bolstering those regimes and their repressive norms in the process. In order to be consistent, and to serve the true interests of justice, democracies must not aid undemocratic governments in the repression of their people.

It is hypocritical for democratic governments to utilize surveillance technology to watch their own people while denying that technology to others

It is a fatal conceit to consider democracies somehow above the influence of using their surveillance technology to curtail the freedoms of their own citizens. The biggest customers of Western surveillance technology companies are wealthy democracies. The United Kingdom, for example, has one of the most-watched populations in the world, with a saturation of CCTV cameras far in excess of any dictatorship.[1] The PATRIOT Act in America, also, has given the federal government enormous scope for domestic spying. These powers are no less simply because the government is composed in part of elected officials. The security establishment is appointed, not elected, and their servicemen are promoted from within. It is base hypocrisy to pretend that the security systems are inherently more just when employed in democratic states than in undemocratic ones. They are used for the same purpose, to ensure that the state is protected and the status quo maintained. Democracies have no moral basis on which to base this policy.

[1] BBC News. “Britain is ‘Surveillance Society’”.  2 November 2006,


While Western states are willing to use surveillance technology to restrict their citizens, they do so always with a democratic mandate. That is the key difference. Democracies use surveillance technology to provide their people with the safety and security they demand, a security over which the people always have the veto of the ballot box. The non-democracy is not checked by any such power, and thus its use of surveillance technology faces no constraint.

This ban will alienate non-democracies from discourse and stifle reform efforts

When a state is declared illegitimate in the eyes of a large part of the international community, its natural reaction is one of upset and anger. A ban on the sale of surveillance technology to non-democracies would be seen as a brutal slap in the face to many regimes that consider themselves, and are often considered by their people, to be the legitimate government of their country. The ban will result in further tension between non-democracies and democracies, breaking down communication channels. Democracies are best able to effect change in regimes when they seek to engage them constructively, to galvanize them to make gradual connections to the development of civil society and to loosen restrictions on freedoms, such as reducing domestic spying. The ban makes it clear that the ultimate aim of democracies is to effectively overthrow the existing governments of non-democracies in favour of systems more like their own. The outcome of this conclusion is far less willingness on the part of these regimes to discuss reform, and makes it more likely that they will demonize pro-democracy activists within their borders as agents of foreign powers seeking to subvert and conquer them. This particular narrative has been used to great effect by many regimes throughout history, including North Korea and Zimbabwe, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa for example denounced a travel and arms sales ban as attempting to “undermine the inclusive government”.[1] By treating non-democracies as responsible actors democracies do much more in effectively furthering their own aims.

[1] BBC News, “Zimbabwean minister denounces EU”, 14 September 2009,


Banning the sale of surveillance technology does not mean democracies are declaring all undemocratic regimes illegitimate. Rather, they are simply not allowing their technology to aid in the repression of people, which is the only use to which that technology is put in practice. Reform sometimes demands a firm hand, and while some regimes will be riled by what they perceive as an insult, the greater chance for dissidents to develop networks and voices is worth the cost.

The inability to use advanced technologies merely forces non-democracies to utilize more unsavoury methods to achieve their aims

If it is the aim of an undemocratic regime to use advanced surveillance technology to gather intelligence on, and ultimately crush, dissent it will find other means of doing so. Their calculus of survival is not changed, only their available methods. Their first port of call will be the more advanced non-democracies that might be able to supply comparable surveillance equipment. China’s military and surveillance technology is fast catching up to that of the West, and makes an appealing alternative source for equipment.[1] The only difference is that the Chinese have no compunction at all about how the technology is used, meaning worse outcomes for pro-democracy groups who run afoul of them. When this strategy fails regimes can turn to the tried and tested models of past decades, using physical force and other less technological modes of coercion to cow dissent. Again, this form of repression is quite effective, but it is also much more painful to those on the receiving end. Given the options, democracies supplying surveillance technology may be the best option for dissidents in undemocratic countries.

[1] Walton, G. “China’s Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People’s Republic of China”. International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. 2001. 


Oppressive regimes have turned to the use of advanced surveillance technology in response to activists’ learning to evade more conventional methods of surveillance, and by moving their organizations online. Western surveillance technology has filled a niche that was once open for dissidents. By placing this ban, even if the regimes turn back to old methods, they will still be hampered in the crushing of dissent. Furthermore, no regime has the resources or power to have physical surveillance as pervasive as the technology denied them would allow. Electronic surveillance therefore can cast a much broader net that would allow the government to repress many more people who would not be subject to more labour intensive physical surveillance.


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Banks, M. “Senior MEP Calls for Freeze on Arms Sale to North Africa”. The 7 July 2011.

BBC News. “Britain is ‘Surveillance Society’”.  2 November 2006,

BBC News, “Zimbabwean minister denounces EU”, 14 September 2009,

Burrows, G. “No-Nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade”. New Internationalist. 2002,

Elgin, B. “House Bill May Ban US Surveillance Gear Sales”. Bloomberg. 9 December 2012.

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Rep. Christopher Smith, “H.R. 3605: Global Online Freedom Act of 2011”,, 8 December 2011,

Silver, Vernon, and Ben Elgin. 2011. “Torture in Bahrain Becomes Routine With Help From Nokia Siemens.” Bloomberg. Retrieved August 28, 2011 ( ).

Valentino-Devries, J. “US Firm Acknowledges Syria Uses its Gear to Block Web”. Wall Street Journal. 29 October 2011,

Walton, G. “China’s Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People’s Republic of China”. International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. 2001.

Wagner, Ben. 2012. Exporting Censorship and Surveillance Technology. Den Haag, The Netherlands.

Wexler, L. “The International Deployment of Shame, Second-Best Responses, And Norm Entrepreneurship: The Campaign to Ban Landmine and the landmine Ban Treaty”. Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law. 2003.