Tuesday, January 15, 2008

China's Censorship as a Restraint of Trade

The greatest free speech case in history – that’s what Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, calls his group’s initiative against Communist China, the biggest suppresser of free speech in the world.

Scheer’s coalition is urging the U.S. government to file a complaint against China for erecting barriers that deny U.S. Internet companies free access to China's market and thereby grossly violating the free trade rules of the World Trade Organization. The potential beneficiaries of a successful complaint would be 1,200,000,000 citizens of China and dozens of foreign multinational corporations trying to sell goods and services in China’s huge market.

The California Coalition made a formal presentation of its case to the staff of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington on November 15. Its briefing paper developed in detail how China’s repression of freedom of information violated key multilateral trade agreements, including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which covers trade in goods, and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

More Comprehensive Information Still To Come

“We will be submitting further, more comprehensive briefing materials in early January,” Scheer noted in an email to me.

The 1,700-word paper he submitted in November already seems to make a powerful case, especially since China patently violates one of the WTO’s cardinal principles – .the “national treatment” principle, which requires that imported goods and services be treated the same as those produced locally. “The government of China is actively preventing U.S. internet companies from doing business in China, while at the same time promoting Chinese Internet companies in the same or similar activities,” the briefing paper points out. It cites several among the “a wide range of laws and regulations that result in de jure or defacto” discriminatory treatment of U.S. Internet companies.

Earlier in 2007, a leading search engine operating in China, Google Inc., made its own overture to USTR suggesting use of the trade lever to combat Internet censorship. Andrew McClaughlin, Google’s director of public policy, then called censorship “the No. 1 barrier to trade that we face.” (See “Rethinking Censorship, Google, and Free Trade.”) At that time an AP article quoted a USTR spokesperson as saying that a human rights issue such as censorship typically belongs over in the State Department.

The biggest immediate barrier faced by the First Amendment Coalition is the conventional thinking of trade bureaucrats, who can’t quite wrap their minds around a modern development like the Internet. Another huge barrier is the political and economic power that China and other censorship-infected countries have to prevent changes in global trade rules.

When the multilateral trading system was launched 60 years ago, its 23 founding countries unwisely gave dictatorial countries equal status with democratic ones. Why must that equal treatment continue when clearly undeserved, notoriously so in the case of Communist China?
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Yahoo Stockholders: No Free Speech Activists They

At Yahoo's annual general meeting last May, stockholders turned down proposals to put the company firmly on record as opposed to censorship of the Internet. About 85 percent opposed a company anti-censorship policy, and all but 4 percent turned thumbs down on a proposed committee to examine the company's human rights policy in China and elsewhere.

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