The bitter dispute between Google and China rumbles on. In the latest episode, the company has released a white paper urging the international community to fight internet restrictions, which it calls the “trade barriers of the 21st century”.
Naturally, Google officials denied that the report was targeted at a specific country. Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, told the FT:
It’s not to do with what’s happened in China – it’s a broader attempt to get at these issues. Governments that block the free flow of information not only are breaking trade agreements in certain ways, but they’re hurting their own economies as well.
In the paper, Google argues that internet censorship – which it claims is applied in 40 countries today, including China, Turkey and Vietnam – hurts internet companies as well as other businesses that depend on the internet to reach customers.
Such restrictions could also breach parts of the World Trade Organization agreement, which sets limits on non-tariff barriers to trade.
Yet far from merely pointing out the harmful effects of internet censorship on free trade, Google also suggests a three-pronged strategy policymakers in the United States and European Union could pursue to break down these barriers:
- Focus on and publicly highlight as unfair trade barriers those practices by governments that restrict or disrupt the flow of online information services.
- Take appropriate action where government restrictions on the free flow of online information violate international trade rules.
- Establish new international trade rules under bilateral, regional, and multilateral agreements that provide further assurances in favor of the free flow of information on the Internet.
This is asking a lot of the US and the EU, especially given that countries applying restrictions – in particular China – are among their biggest trading partners. Aside from the question of feasibility, it is hard not to question Google’s motives in publishing the paper. Clearly it believes that the principle of transparency is worth fighting for. But it has compromised in the past when business is at stake. Earlier this year it gave in to Chinese demands to stop re-directing users to its uncensored Hong Kong site in order to renew its operating license.
Google has struggled to establish a foothold in the Chinese market, in no small part thanks to Beijing’s censorship.
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