Policy Laundering

Executive Summary

If a government has a policy they feel they will not be able to force through their own parliament they often use Policy Laundering. The steps to follow are:

  1. Find a international institution like the European Union or United Nations.
  2. Heavily lobby, use influence or do a deal with several other governments to pass the legislation safe in the knowledge that the national press do not follow what is happening in these institutions.
  3. In the National Parliament blame the horrible nasty international institution for forcing new/expensive/repressive national policies because of international agreements or treaty obligations.

This has been done with


Cory Doctorow

"Policy laundering is something that every 5 year old is familiar with. The essential thing that you need to know to understand policy laundering is 'but Dad said I could'. If you have ever seen a 5 year old come up to his mother and say "but Dad said I could" then you have witnessed policy laundering in action."

MEP Sarah Ludford, in response to the Data retention directive

“This directive is a prime example of ‘euro-wash’ policy-laundering. Not only does it impose a mandatory data retention obligation on the majority of EU states, including the UK, which has none at present. It also permits ‘gold-plating’, for storage time limits way beyond two years, keeping even more data and allowing access to any government department or private firm.”

Alan Cox, in response to a question about the software patent directive

It is worrying that they're back on the agenda. It's a sign of more fundamental problems in the EU. The democratic process (of the European Parliament) is being devolved (to the unelected European Commission). It's what people call policy laundering: "It's a good idea, but we'll never get it past the electorate, so let's slip it through and then pass it on to the individual governments."

Barry Steinhardt Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program talking about Biometric Passports

"We call that 'policy laundering, the U.S. government knows that the American people will never go for a national I.D. card or a national database of every American's fingerprints and photographs, but this proposal, if approved, will allow the United States to claim that large steps toward those policies are 'necessary to comply with international standards.'"




2004-11-05 - Business Week - UK biometric passports launched
Author: John Carey
Summary: Privacy advocates are appalled by the ongoing plan to equip all U.S. passports with RFID chips that can be read surreptitiously from a distance. In what critics call policy laundering, that decision was ostensibly left to an obscure U.N.-affiliated agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization. For the Bush Administration, "the advantage of using the ICAO is that they have none of the transparency of a U.S. government agency," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's technology and liberty program. Groups like the ACLU were shut out of the process.


  • Policylaundering.org
  • Spy Blog: The Policy Laundering Project
  • Policy Laundering Home Page
  • Walking on the dark side Agreeing was so easy that governments increasingly have policies that are unpopular on the domestic front ratified at international gatherings, then re-introduce them at home, where they can be justified as fulfilling international standards. Civil society and democratic procedures meanwhile are left out of the picture entirely. The process has become known as "policy laundering" and has made inroads into daily life more than is generally known.


Cory Doctorow’s Lecture on Policy Laundering, Copyright and the Broadcast Flag