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The Ethics of Proxy Servers: A Discussion

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Recently, we posted about a method that had come to light for circumventing the location requirement on Netflix (and other streaming sites). The technique involves using proxy networks to bypass security, and allows the user access to large amounts of previously blocked content.
While the discussion of this matter is still very interesting to us, we realized it begged an even bigger question. While using these “VPN’s” to watch TV online and enjoy free online movies currently occupies a legal loophole and moral grey area, what if the stakes were higher?
A VPN could also be used to work around digital roadblocks that protect content barred for political reasons, or because of a desire to suppress free speech.
China is one prominent example of a country that engages in Internet censorship for its citizens. Prominent examples of this are primarily political in nature, ranging from Tiananmen Square and freedom of speech, to democracy and China’s position with respect to Taiwan and Tibet. However, China has also blocked many search engines and social media sites either entirely or by only allowing limited versions. China has also blocked foreign e-commerce sites in order to promote domestic sales and companies. To see a comprehensive list of blocked sites, see here.
When the idea of blocking certain sites isn’t a the choice of a company, limiting your access to media content for commercial reasons; but rather a country, limiting your access to a litany of content on political principles, does that change your opinion on the Use of VPN’s?
Is it ok to use technology to protect freedom of speech? Is there a limit to that practice? Part of the Netflix debate was the fact that a terms of service exists which those using VPN’s violate. For citizens in China, isn’t there a social contract to abide by the laws of the nation one is a citizen of? Is violating this type of state censorship law the same, or different than violating terms of service? Does the notion Americans hold of free speech as a universal right take precedence over regulations, or is that another instance of one group’s views being imposed on another?
As you can see there are a host of deep moral and ethical issues at hand in this case. Consider situations presented here and in the “free movies on Netflix” issue. Do your views vary by the situation or stay the same? Why? This is a wonderful opportunity for families to discuss the universality of moral conduct together, and set about establishing personal guidelines for how we conduct ourselves in daily life.

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