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Battering Down the Great Firewall of China

February 2, 2010, Taz.de

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization,” declared Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. These days, authoritarian regimes of all sorts find such "immensely facilitated means of communication” alarming, most especially the intellectual heirs of Marx who rule the People’s Republic of China. And nothing has facilitated communication more immensely than the spread the Internet across the globe in the past two decades. Now nearly 2 billion people use the Internet, some 400 million of them in China.

China’s rulers have attempted to deny their citizens Internet access to subversive ideas by constructing the Great Firewall of China—or as the Chinese Ministry of Public Security prefers to call it, the Golden Shield Project. The Firewall was instituted in 1998 and censorship has grown increasingly strict ever since. It is estimated that some 30,000 people are employed by the Ministry of Public Security to monitor and block offending websites. The Firewall prevents Chinese citizens from accessing at least 18,000 foreign websites, including such subversive sites as Twitter and YouTube. Given the Chinese government’s attitude toward critical reporting, I used Website Test to find that the access to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists* website is blocked.

Recently the controversy over the Firewall heated up in the wake of a series of hacker attacks on the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Spurred by this intrusion, last month Google announced, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.” Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 with the launch of Google.cn.

When China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 it agreed that foreign service companies would have the same access to markets in China as domestic companies do. Now the European Union and the U.S. Trade Representative office are considering an argument that the Great Firewall violates China’s obligations to permit free trade in services under its agreements with the WTO. Last year, in a working paper titled Protectionism Online: Internet Censorship and International Trade Law, the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) think tank argued that “WTO member states are legally obliged to permit an unrestricted supply of crossborder Internet services.”

Since 2007, the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) has been pushing the U.S. Trade Representative to file a case against China on the grounds that it has been violating its WTO obligations. CFAC argues that, among other violations, China discriminates against foreign suppliers of Internet services by blocking them at the border while allowing domestic suppliers to offer like services. In addition, China has violated its commitments not to introduce or apply non-tariff measures when it joined the WTO by blocking a number of imported products without explanation or justification. China has also not set up any administrative procedures through which foreign suppliers of online services could appeal the blocking of imported publications and content.

Based on precedent, the ECIPE report argues that the WTO would very likely find that China’s censorship is a breach of its free trade obligations. For example, last year the WTO ruled that China was violating its obligations to allow foreign enterprises and individuals to import, either physically or via electronic means, reading materials, audiovisual home entertainment products such as DVDs, music and other sound recordings, and films for theatrical release. In international contexts, China is often a stickler that insists that other countries adhere to their agreed upon treaty obligations, so there is some possibility that China would lower its Firewall if the WTO ruled against it.

But a ruling from the WTO doesn't necessarily come anywhere close to guaranteeing that China will open up Internet access. “Not all WTO rulings...result in actual compliance,” the ECIPE report notes, with a certain understatement. “The member found to be employing WTO-inconsistent measures might decide to continue to use them and accept the consequent retaliation.” Generally, if a country refuses to accept a WTO ruling other countries can retaliate by imposing tariffs on goods and services from that country. For example, the WTO found that the European ban on the import of beef from the U.S. that had been treated with growth hormone is based on specious health concerns and is not compatible with its WTO obligations. When the European Union refused to lift the ban, the U.S. imposed retaliatory tariffs on such European products as Roquefort cheese. If the WTO found that China’s censorship was a violation of its commitments to free trade in services, but nevertheless refused to lift it, China could either accept retaliatory tariffs or withdraw its commitments and pay compensation to companies that had been adversely affected by the censorship.

A spokeswoman for the trade representative's office recently told Agence France-Presse, “This is a very complex area that we continue to think through, in consultation with interested groups including the First Amendment Coalition and have not made any decisions one way or another.” Google’s stand against Chinese censorship offers the Obama administration an opportunity to put pressure on China to open up its information markets, especially by filing of a WTO case. As Karl Marx also noted in The Communist Manifesto, commerce is the “heavy artillery” that “batters down all Chinese walls.” It will be commerce that brings down the Great Firewall of China as well.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

*Disclosure: I have been making small donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists for a number of years.