Congressional Hearing on China’s Internet Censorship and the WTO

Do China’s Internet censorship policies ignore the regulations of the World Trade Organization? Yes, is the claim of the non-profit public interest organization, California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC). Members of CFAC testified yesterday in front of Congress’ U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, regarding web censorship and other means of information control policies in China. Trade law experts question China’s compliance with obligations set forth in the WTO, of which China has been a member since 2001. Specifically, CFAC believes that China’s policies of blocking websites such as YouTube, BBCnews, Wikipedia, and WordPress and other firewall practices violate the principles of free trade set forth in WTO and GATT treaties. CFAC news explains,

Even when popular US-based websites are not being completely blocked inside China, the websites’ performance is seriously degraded by the Great Firewall, which adds several seconds (or more) to websites’ loading times, as experienced by people in China, says CFAC. This performance deficit puts US-based websites at a severe disadvantage compared to their Chinese competitors, whose websites’ function normally inside China.

Information control is one of many public concerns over China’s repressive practices and human rights violations, including the country’s Tibetan policy and their state-run control over the Olympic games. But what interests me here is that Beijing’s web censorship agenda is no longer just an issue of “democracy.” It is now an issue of international trade, of which the Internet is an increasingly important mechanism. A decade ago, the Internet and other digital technologies changed the face of global trade by lowering the costs of moving goods and information around the world. Now, as we are growing accustomed to the Internet as a basis for international trade and marketing, we are facing the problems that come along with it.

The global marketplace is governed by democracies and non-democracies alike, some with transparent and relatively un-monitored network systems and others who maintain policies of pervasive filtering and censorship. It can be difficult for governments and corporations to navigate through this kind of trade environment. In the past, nations have argued over tariff and non-tariff barriers, government subsidies, and other trade protections that put their own industries at a disadvantage. But in this digital age, Internet regulation is bound to become a central part of these trade wars.

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