Actively circumventing Internet censorship is a legitimate foreign policy tool

Censorship and internet filtering has been increasing over the last few years. While authoritarian regimes feel that they need to censor the internet in order to stifle political dissent and keep certain topics out of the public domain, it should be noted that internet filtering is common across the world. Importantly the breadth and complexity of censorship has been increasing over the last few years with methods of control becoming more diverse and more effective.[1]

With the cyber realm increasingly seen as a place of conflict as shown by the United States military building up its cyber command and threatening that it would retaliate against cyber attacks[2] it is not surprising that undermining censorship should be seen as simply another part of foreign policy. Former US Secretary of State Clinton in 2011 pledged “to help people in oppressive internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online” and committed $25million “to support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression.”[3]

It is therefore clear that states will use circumventing censorship as part of their foreign policy but is it legitimate to do so? Legitimacy is unfortunately quite a nebulous concept in politics and international relations; what one state, or person, considers legitimate is beyond the pale for another. There is not even consensus on whether it is inputs or outputs that matter; is it the decision making process and the institutions through which that process travels or is it the results that are politically legitimate? Today we might consider only democratically representative government to be legitimate, but even if the government is considered legitimate is its foreign policy automatically then legitimate?[4] We might consider the Iraq war for example; there is no doubt that the Bush Administration and Tony Blair’s government were legitimate but it is much more questionable whether the policy they were undertaking was. Circumventing internet censorship may be a foreign policy that is much less controversial than engaging in a war but the legitimacy of the policy is still contestable.

[1] Kelly, Sanja, Cook, Sarah, and Truong, Mai, eds., ‘Freedom on the Net 2012’, Freedom House, 24 September 2012,

[2] Reed, john, “Cyber Command fielding 13 “offensive” cyber deterrence units”, Foreign Policy Killer Apps, 12 March 2013,

[3] Clinton, H., ‘Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Speech on Internet Freedom *updated*’, Secretaryclinton, 15 February 2011,

[4] Peter, Fabienne, "Political Legitimacy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),


Advancing national interests

A nation’s foreign policy should be primarily concerned with advancing the national interest. By the national interest we mean promoting the interest of the nation as a whole rather than any of its subnational groups; whether this is building up the state's military power to protect its citizens through alliances or military bases, benefiting the nation's economy through trade deals, or encouraging the creation of friendly governments around the globe.[1] Circumventing censorship helps obtain this last objective for democracies by encouraging peoples in autocracies to find their own voice and push for democracy; a system of government that is more compatible to other democracies. Ultimately this will also provide other benefits; friendly governments with similar political systems are more likely to create trade agreements with each other so providing economic benefits, in the 1990s the volume of trade between a democracy and autocracy was on average 40% less than two democracies.[2] Equally importantly democracies do not fight other democracies so helping to create stability.[3]

[1] Realism emphasises the alliances bit, Liberalism the economic self interest, and constructivists spreading values. Walt, Stephen M, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories”, Foreign Policy, Spring 1998,,%20Many%20Theories.pdf

[2] Mansfield, Edward D., et al., “Free to Trade: Democracies, Autocracies, and International Trade”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 94, No. 2, p.318

[3] Rousseau, David L., et al., “Assessing the Dayadic Nature of the Democratic Peace, 1918-88”, The American Political Science Review, Vol.90, No.3, p.515


There is little certainty that undermining an autocracy will benefit the countries that undermine it. No state can full control what goes on in another state; an even more oppressive regime could be the result. Even if there is a transition to a democracy this does not mean it will benefit those who wanted change. This is because democratic governments have to take account of the desires of their own people which may not always be in alignment with the interests of the foreign powers that supported political change. Thus while it would seem that the United States, as a democracy, should be naturally inclined to support a democratic government in Egypt in practice Mubarak operated more in line with US interests by keeping the peace with Israel that the Muslim brotherhood threatens to disrupt.

It is legitimate to undermine illegitimate governments to promote human rights

Autocratic governments that breach their people’s human rights have no legitimacy domestically as they do not represent the people or protect their interests. They also have no international legitimacy, as they are violating their obligations that they have signed up to through various international agreements such as the universal declaration of human rights[1] and the international covenant on civil and political rights[2] which oblige states to respect their citizen’s human rights. Other states therefore are legitimate in acting for the people of the repressed state to undermine their government and take up their cause. By imposing censorship the government is violating its people's freedom of expression which that government has promised to uphold therefore it is right that other governments should endeavour to uphold that standard. It was therefore right for the west to undermine the USSR and the communist governments of Eastern Europe through radio broadcasts such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, they gained immense audiences, a third of urban adults in the USSR and almost half of East Europeans with these sources often being considered more credible.[3]

[1] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),

[2] UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171,

[3] Johnson, A. Ross, and Parta, R. Eugene, “Cold War International Broadcasting: Lessons Learned”, Briefing to the Rancho Mirage Seminar p.54


It is not up to outside powers to decide what is and what is not in the interest of any peoples but their own. While those attempting to circumvent censorship may see themselves as promoting some kind of universal human rights in practice they are pushing their own notions on other peoples that may not share these ideals. This may be the case even when there are some in that start that share these ideas; thus for example while there are dissidents in China that want democracy, most of the population is not particularly concerned with creating a more democratic system and in 2009 95.9% were satisfied with their government’s performance.[1]

[1] Saich, Tony, “Chinese governance seen through the people’s eyes”, East Asia Forum, 24 July 2011,

It is domestic not international legitimacy that matters

What matters for a state when it comes to foreign policy, and therefore with helping to circumvent censorship, is whether the policy is considered legitimate domestically. Since a government's legitimacy is domestically derived from the support of its people if they support the policy then it is legitimate. While it is often not considered a top priority people in democracies usually support promoting human rights and spreading democracy around the world.[1]

[1] Stevenson, Kirsten, “Strong support for democracy promotion in national opinion ballot”, Foreign Policy Association, 23 October 2012,


The public are rarely interested in foreign policy and want to keep well clear of foreign entanglements; they may like the idea of promoting democracy but if it means anything more than simple public support then they shy away as shown by only around 20-30% considering it a priority.[1] Undermining censorship may seem to be a cheap option for governments but they then have to own the consequences; such as having to pay to build stability which may be much more costly. The American people may have supported the Iraq war but they were against the immense amounts of wealth that was spent to try to put the country back together again. By undermining censorship revolution is being promoted along with the damage and chaos this can bring so the result may be a costly rebuilding process, possibly with troops on the ground.

[1] “Historically, Public Has Given Low Priority to Promoting Democracy Overseas”, Pew Research Center, 4 February 2011,

It is legitimate to enable freedom

Circumventing censorship is a cost effective method of promoting freedom. When a country has refused to recognise the right to freedom of expression of its own people and indeed is actively stopping them from exercising this right then it is legitimate for other countries to step in to act as an enabler of those rights. By circumventing censorship so the freedom of expression is returned to those that have had their voice stripped from them. Doing this costs the state that is acting almost nothing; thus Britain’s Foreign Office is devoting a mere £1.5million to promoting expression online,[1] and yet the benefits for those who it helps can be considerable by helping them to publicise and organise themselves by providing a platform. The small cost should be compared to the benefit of keeping activists one step ahead of the authorities by, for example providing software that helps make sure online communication is anonymous, which can save lives.

[1] “William Hague promises £1.5m to promote freedom of expression online”, BBC News, 30 April 2012,


As foreign states are not the legitimate representative of the people it is not legitimate for them to set themselves up as the arbiter for those whom it believes are being deprived of rights. These states that are meddling in the affairs of others cannot know the full consequences of their actions; circumventing censorship could end up simply undermining a stable state without enabling anything to replace it. This is just as the Arab Spring has undermined the Syrian government but has only resulted in a conflict not the creation of a stable democracy. Countries that undermined the Syrian government cannot say that their contribution has been positive when there have been 70,000 killed[1] as a result of the collapse of the state.

[1] Nichols, Michelle, “Syria death toll likely near 70,000, says U.N. rights chief”, Reuters, 12 February 2013,

The international system is based on equality and non-interference

Relations between states are based upon “the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” The UN Charter emphasises “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.[1] Within a state only the government is legitimate as the supreme authority within its territory.[2] Without such rules the bigger, richer, states would be able to pray on the weaker ones. This cannot simply be put aside because one state does not like how the other state runs its own internal affairs. The United Nations has gone so far as to explicitly state “all peoples have the right, freely and without external interference, to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”[3] Circumventing censorship would clearly be another power attempting to impose its own ideas of political cultural and social development.

[1] UN General Assembly, Article 2, Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945,

[2] Philpott, Dan, "Sovereignty", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[3] UN General Assembly, “Respect for the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of States in their electoral processes”, 18 December 1990, A/RES/45/151,4565c22538,4565c25f437,3b00efe434,0,,,.html


Proclamations that there can be no interference in another state are simply attempts by elites to cling on to power by preventing any help reaching those campaigning for democracy. These declarations, even the UN Charter, are negotiated, written, and signed by the leaders of governments not their people so favour those who are already in power. Something cannot be considered illegitimate just because it is supported by the status quo.

Governments enable censorship to protect their citizens

What censorship is it legitimate to undermine? Censorship is often created in order to protect the people not to strip them of freedoms. This is most obvious when we consider that filters to prevent hate speech or child pornography are forms of censorship that may be enabled with the intention of protecting citizens not repressing them. Iceland for example has recently decided to ban pornography and it would be enabled in a similar way to censorship by regimes like China or Iran.[1] Even harsher censorship that naturally looks more repressive to us may be considered a legitimate means of protecting the people and their values. When a government is using censorship to ensure stability is that censorship not justified when compared to the alternative? While there may be divisions internally about the legitimacy of this censorship it is certainly not legitimate for outside actors to impose their own idea of how much censorship there should be.

[1] Kiss, Jemima, “Iceland’s porn ban ‘conflicts with the idea of a free society’, say critics”,, 28 February 2013,


Governments do not have a monopoly on the knowledge of what is best for their people and even the people may themselves make a mistake when deciding on whether to be an open society. Thus even if it appears that many people support censorship it may be legitimate to undermine it. In particular is people have never had a chance to experience life without that censorship how can they be considered to be making an informed choice when deciding to live with censorship?

This policy is not necessary and may be counterproductive

Unless a state wishes to pull the plug on the internet entirely state censorship on the internet is never complete. Dissidents and those who are interested in getting around censorship will manage with or without help from other governments, they will use privately developed software, or proxies to get around censors and protect themselves. Having help from foreign governments to bypass censorship may even put the people this policy is trying to empower in an even worse position. The use of software that is meant to undermine censorship helps to prove that the dissident’s intent is hostile towards the government and the state’s policies – otherwise they would not need to software, and would not resort to using methods developed by foreign countries. Russia is increasingly cracking down on those who have contact or receive help from ‘foreign agents’ particularly foreign NGOs, such a policy could be as easily applied to online help as financial aid.[1]

[1] Earle, Jonathan, “Hundreds of NGOs Checked for Foreign Agents, Extremism”, The Moscow Times, 19 March 2013,


If a regime is so intolerant as to threaten its citizens for using lines of communication that have been opened by another country then that country is clearly in need of greater openness towards freedom of expression and information. This is something that undermining censorship achieves. Clearly in a few cases the attempt to circumvent censorship may be used by the government but the creation of the path to circumvent censorship alone shows that foreign governments are watching. Even the most repressive regimes are less likely to use force when they know the outside world is watching.

Aggressive foreign policy is not legitimate foreign policy

Foreign policy is legitimate when it is peaceful and based upon mutual respect. It is no surprise that the most controversial foreign policy actions are those that are aggressive whether this is invading another state such as the Iraq war, attempting humanitarian intervention as in Kosovo, or engaging in clandestine actions such as Iran-Contra. This is because there is a powerful norm against aggressive action in international relations in order to maintain stability.

Undermining states by circumventing censorship is simply a new method of engaging in aggressive actions against another state. NATO has accepted that cyber operations can be considered to constitute an armed conflict,[1] so it is increasingly accepted that actions on the internet can be aggressive action. Indeed “If such cyber operations are intended to coerce the government… the operation may constitute a prohibited ‘intervention’”.[2] While no one would argue that this policy will create a war it is not a very big step from considering cyber attacks to be armed conflict to considering undermining states through circumventing censorship to be an aggressive action.  

[1] Bowcott, Owen, “Rules of cyberwar: don't target nuclear plants or hospitals, says Nato manual”, The Guardian, 18 March 2013,

[2] Schmitt, Michael N., ed., “The Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare”, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p.17.


The NATO manual does specifically state “network intrusions, the deletion or destruction of data… computer network exploitation, and data theft do not amount to a non-international armed conflict.”[1] Instead it has to be persistent, and be carried out by organised armed groups; likely not criteria that would be ever satisfied by undermining censorship.

[1] Schmitt, Michael N., ed., “The Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare”, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp.87-88.


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