China's Blocking Of U.S. Websites Could Violate WTO Free Trade Rules

A California advocacy group is tackling Internet censorship in China by arguing that country's restrictions on speech violate the World Trade Organization's free trade rules.

"We'd like all Internet censorship to be stopped," said Gilbert Kaplan, a Washington, D.C. lawyer representing the public interest organization California First Amendment Coalition in this initiative.

That group several weeks ago quietly filed papers with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington, urging the agency to file a WTO complaint against China.

The California organization's theory, drawn from a 2006 law review article by Columbia University professor Tim Wu, is that China's blocking of sites like YouTube, Wikipedia and Technorati constitutes discrimination against U.S. companies.

"China's censorship of the Internet, while fundamentally an issue of free speech and individual liberty, is also a significant barrier to U.S.-China commerce and therefore, very much a trade issue," said California First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Peter Scheer on Monday in a statement. "In infringing the rights of its 1.2 billion citizens, China is also infringing the rights of American companies to sell goods and services to consumers in China, via the Internet," he added.

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Google earlier this year also made a similar argument to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. When Google launched its Chinese site last year, it made the controversial decision to use filters to block material objectionable to the authorities there.

China isn't the only country to limit people's access to the Web, but the California group started its initiative with China because with more than 1 billion residents, it's the largest country to do so. Scheer says he hopes that any action the WTO takes against China will influence other countries.

"This case struck us as the most important freedom of speech case ever," Scheer told Online Media Daily. "If we are fortunate, and succeed before the World Trade Organization with respect to China, the legal theory that is adopted in that scenario is likely to be one that applies equally to any of the countries that practice censorship."

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