Barrier to Information: Barrier to Commerce

This week, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative went knocking on China's door, seeking information from Beijing about their government's censorship of the internet. The implication of this inquiry coming from USTR, of course, is that the Obama Administration is getting serious about internet freedom not just as a human rights issue, but as an issue of commerce.

Secretary Clinton's State Department has shown remarkable global leadership over the past two years, clearly defining the U.S.' position that freedoms of expression and assembly must be protected online just as they are offline. And last year, the Commerce Department's (then under the leadership of Gary Locke, who is now Ambassador to China) Internet Policy Task Force sought comment on treating barriers to the free flow of information as barriers to trade. NDN hosted a Commerce Department official last year for a discussion about the Department's approach to treating censorship as a trade barrier; you can watch a video of the event here.

Of course, the way China censors the internet really does hamper U.S. business interests. Twitter is blocked, Facebook is blocked, YouTube is blocked. Google shut down its operations in the mainland two years ago, ostensibly on account of not wanting to censor their search results anymore. Each of these sites deals with censorship in other countries-- Iran has a harsh censorship regime, so too do countries like Syria and North Korea, and even countries like Turkey and Thailand have in the past issued blanket bans on certain services. But in the case of China, we're talking about the world's biggest market, where blocking of sites like Twitter and Facebook allows homegrown alternatives to prosper. Sounds a lot like protectionism, no?

Specifically, the USTR is seeking "clarification" about what, exactly, China's censorship rules and policies are. The request seems almost tongue-in-cheek: China's rules (as is the case with most censoring governments) are notoriously, deliberately vague and ambiguous. Some sites are blocked sometimes, others are always blocked, still others are just partially blocked. By asking the Chinese government to share and explain its rules, the office of the USTR is asking a question without an answer. And they got a commensurately absurd response from the Chinese government spokesperson, who pointed out that Beijing "supports" the use of the internet (over 400 million users! how many have you got?!) and then segued into commentary about national sovereignty.

It's a tricky issue-- and a very new issue-- and, admittedly, among the myriad challenges in the U.S. relationship with China, the impact of internet censorship on U.S. business interests isn't paramount. Still, it's greatly encouraging to see the Obama Administration taking on the issue of internet freedom from another angle. For those who don't find human rights a compelling case to fight for policy change, perhaps the commercial argument will be more persuasive.