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[liberationtech] On the politics of the circumvention debate

Evgeny Morozov evgeny.morozov at
Fri Sep 17 13:54:08 PDT 2010

At the risk of steering this debate away from Haystack, I'd like to reflect
on something that Mehdi ementioned in one of his recent emails to the list -
namely his suggestion that my questioning of the US government's involvement
with Haystack may somehow shift policy debate around circumvention tools in
Washington and might thus damage the prospects of obtaining more government
funding for such tools.

I think Mehdi's are valid concerns but I don't think that a shift in the
policy debate around circumvention is necessarily a bad thing. Those who
have not been following the field very closely may benefit from knowing that
there are a lot of people - me included - who have been asking for precisely
this kind of policy debate to occur for a very long time. (For a good
summary of recent arguments on this issue see Ethan Zuckerman's essay Beyond

Another person who has consistently spoken out about the need to go beyond
circumvention is Rebecca MacKinnon and I hope she can chime in here as well.
I also know that there are plenty of people who take the exact opposite side
in this debate. I wish I could say that this is an issue on which there is
consensus within the community - but I can't.

I certainly understand Mehdi's interest in ensuring that the web-sites that
he runs - as well as many other Internet resources - are accessible to users
in Iran. But I don't think that this alone justifies not taking a broader
view of the field and trying to figure out whether there has been too much
focus - including on the funding front - on supporting circumvention tools
at the expense of not funding/discussing/designing appropriate responses to
other, more "liquid" types of Internet control like the intimidation of
bloggers or DDoS attacks.

I do understand the concerns of Iranian and Chinese Internet users over
their firewalls - but we should also remember that there are plenty of users
in a country like Russia, who are still suffering from Internet control -
just of a different kind (see the recent Microsoft story in NYT as an
example). Just because so much of Washington's focus is on circumvention,
Russians do not really get as much help in their own struggles. Thus, as far
as I am concerned, if the Haystack controversy could help to finally start
that debate in Washington, this would be great news.  There is no way to get
it right without having a proper debate on these issues as well as
understanding the regional differences in how governments choose
to exercise control over the Internet.

So I'd like to dispute Mehdi's claim that somehow I am not aware of the
potential consequences of my criticism; I am. In almost every post that I
published about Haystack, I made it pretty clear that I'm not interested in
their code as much as I'm interested in the broader environment in which
this unfortunate project got started/survived for so long. And while I
wouldn't want to see major funding cuts to important and effective
circumvention tools, I do think that we need a much better/holistic
understanding of the objectives/priorities facing the field.

I'm clearly in favor of continuing this debate - and certainly in favor of
extending it to Washington, where the lobbyists working for organizations
behind some of these tools - especially the folks from the Global Internet
Freedom Consortium - have done their best to suppress it.


P.S. full disclosure: I sit on the sub-board of the Information Program at
the Open Society Institute and we have funded work in the circumvention
space in the past.
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