Is PRC Net Censorship a Trade Barrier? Revisited

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 11/12/2009 03:32:00 PM
Sometime ago our colleagues over at the International Economic Law and Policy blog posed the question of whether the infamous "Great Firewall of China"--manned by an alleged 30,000 censor prevented capitalist filth like what you read here from polluting the minds of the Chinese people--constituted a trade barrier. This argument for censorship being a trade barrier stems from an earlier case the US filed and has subsequently won against China concerning state-owned entities being given exclusive rights to distribute Western media (books, magazines, movies, TV programmes, etc.) This victory at the WTO has thus emboldened those who want to take PRC Internet censorship to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism as well.

Certainly, I do miss my Chinese readers lost via intermittent censorship. (I am Catholic; I love all people equally regardless of race, creed, or colour). While they are able to access this blog once in a while and even feature it--for some reason, they particularly liked my Frank Zappa post concerning the new cultural revolution and listed Frank's discography--I am still undecided on the merits of this case. Personal opinion aside, Reuters has commented on the ominous possibility of such litigation in the near future. Bang on schedule, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently held a hearing on China's "Media and Information Controls."

Our dear old cyber-friend Iana Dreyer works for the European Centre for IPE whose head, Razeen Sally, is an instructor here at the LSE. Let's just say that the ECIPE's output is rather more liberal--in the classic sense--than I am. Hence, their latest publication makes the case for hitting China hard with a censorship case at the WTO. The blurb I've repeated below; you can download the PDF online:
Internet is a global market place. The rapid development of the Internet, and especially of Internet-based commerce, has largely taken place outside the standard trade-regulatory frameworks that cover most other forms of cross-border commerce. As the size of the Internet markets has grown, and as their contribution to the overall economy has become more pronounced, more attention has been given to regulatory concerns, such as trade-restrictive measures, damaging the climate of trade and investment in the fields of e-commerce, information-based services and online transmissions. One such measure is the blockage of access to websites.

This paper suggests that many WTO member states are legally obliged to permit an unrestricted supply of cross-border Internet services. And as the option to selectively censor rather than entirely block services is available to at least some of the most developed censorship regimes (most notably China), there is a good chance that a panel might rule that permanent blocks on search engines, photo-sharing applications and other services are inconsistent with the GATS provisions, even given morals and security exceptions. Less resourceful countries, without means of filtering more selectively, and with a censorship based on moral and religious grounds, might be able to defend such bans in the WTO. But the exceptions do not offer a blanket cover for the arbitrary and disproportionate censorship that still occurs despite the availability to the censoring government of selective filtering.