28th January 2010

Bridges Weekly | US Group Urges WTO Case to Bring down Chinese Internet Firewall

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A California-based free speech group is exhorting the United States government to bring a WTO case against China’s policies on internet censorship. The call for a suit came one week after Google announced that it would no longer censor its content in China; the company also threatened to pull out of the country if Beijing blocked that move.

In an opinion piece published earlier this month, Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which is pushing for the suit, argued that ‘The Great Firewall of China’ - the various censors and other restrictions imposed on foreign companies - amounts to an illegal barrier to trade because it makes it harder for outside firms to reach Chinese consumers online.

Web sites based outside of China take an additional few seconds to load compared to Chinese-based sites, Scheer explained, and in the online world, “a few seconds might as well be a few extra hours.”

The government firewall “halts internet commerce at China’s borders just as surely as a government regulation requiring perishable agricultural exports from the US to sit for days on China’s docks prior to transhipment to internal distribution facilities,” Scheer wrote.

The First Amendment Coalition has brought its request to the USTR; consultations are ongoing.

“This is a very complex area that we continue to think through, in consultation with interested groups including the First Amendment Coalition, and have not made any decisions one way or the other,” USTR spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh said, according to a report from AFP.

Reuters reported last week that the USTR’s office has been in touch with the law firm King and Spalding, which represents the First Amendment Coalition. “They’ve asked us for more detail about it,” said King and Spalding lawyer Gilbert Kaplan. “We are trying to put that together now.”

A recent report from the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy concluded that many WTO members are legally bound “to permit an unrestricted supply of crossborder internet service.” A failure to do so could constitute a violation of the General Agreement on Trade in Services, the authors found, even given certain exceptions that allow governments to censor in order to protect public morals or ensure national security.

The First Amendment Coalition first approached the USTR’s office more than two years ago, but no WTO case ever materialised. However, Google’s recent run-in with the Chinese policies has prompted renewed scrutiny.

On 12 January, Google announced that it will no longer censor the content that it delivers to web users in China. “We recognise that this may well mean we have to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China,” wrote David Drummond, a senior vice president at Google.

The statement came soon after a mid-December cyber attack against Google’s Chinese operations. The “highly sophisticated and targeted” manoeuvre sought to hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, the company claimed on its website.

Google originally based its Chinese operations outside the country’s borders but the company decided to relocate to within China in January 2006 in order to speed up the loading time of its pages. When it made the move, Google agreed to censor certain content that Beijing found unacceptable. That promise has now been rescinded.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called global attention to the matter when she scolded China, along with a handful of other nations, for boosting internet censorship in the past year. “Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century,” she told an audience in Arlington, Virginia on 21 January.

China shot back with a scathing editorial in The Global Times, a pro-government newspaper. “The US campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy,” the newspaper said, adding that “China’s real stake in the ‘free flow of information’ is evident in its refusal to be victimised by information imperialism.”

ICTSD reporting; “US asked to drag China to WTO over Google dispute,” AFP, 24 January 2010; “USTR mulling WTO case on China web barriers: lawyer,” REUTERS, 22 January 2010.

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