This will be a fun case to watch if it goes anywhere:
The California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), a free speech and government transparency group, has launched an initiative to use international trade laws to force the government of China to end its censorship of the Internet and to remove its barriers to U.S. companies supplying goods and services to the Chinese market via the Internet.
In a presentation to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington, D.C., CFAC and its lawyers petitioned for the filing of a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which China became a member in 2001. The free speech group contends that China's censorship of the Internet--which has been described as the most sophisticated and effective system of censorship in the world-- violates China's obligations under agreements that it signed when it joined the WTO.
"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 CFAC executive director Peter Scheer. "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 said.
Among the agreements that China is alleged to have breached are the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), covering trade in goods, and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The WTO has the authority to decide claims brought by member-nations alleging violations of the GATT and GATS agreements and to impose trade sanctions to enforce compliance. CFAC's initiative is, in effect, an effort to persuade USTR to file such a claim with the WTO, targeting China's censorship of the Internet and corresponding market access barriers.
From the CFAC web site:
This is to update CFAC supporters on our latest efforts to stir up trouble on behalf of First Amendment freedoms. I’m pleased to report that CFAC has managed to create a whole lot of trouble, both globally and locally, in the last 2 months.
First globally: CFAC has initiated a proceeding that will attempt to use international trade laws to force the government of China to end its censorship of the internet. In a submission and presentation to the Office of the US Trade Representative, CFAC has petitioned for the filing of a complaint with the World Trade Organization, of which China became a member in 2001.
Our (concededly novel) theory: that China’s censorship of the internet, the most pervasive and systematic system of censorship in the world, violates China’s obligations under treaties it signed (the GATT, covering free trade in goods, and the GATS, covering services) in order to join the WTO. We contend China must end its censorship or risk limitations on its access to US markets.
Think of this as the biggest access-to-information and free speech case in history. If the Trade Representative agrees with CFAC’s petition and files a complaint with the WTO, and if the WTO rules against China--big “ifs,” to be sure--some 1.2 billion Chinese citizens will, for the first time, have unfiltered access to information about the outside world, via the internet.
CFAC is represented by the national law firm of King & Spalding, whose Washington, DC office specializes in trade matters, including several successful cases against China. CFAC is supported in this initiative by a consortium of organizations, including the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley, among others.
Stay tuned. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this matter.
ADDED: From a Reuters article. Who is behind the case:
A California free speech group whose board of directors includes Google and Yahoo said on Monday it had asked U.S. trade officials to challenge China's Internet restrictions as a violation of global trade rules.
What are the chances it will go forward:
Scheer said he was encouraged by the interest the U.S. Trade Representative's office displayed in the coalition's case when he discussed it with them in late November."They asked the kind of questions that made it clear they were very engaged," Scheer said.