Citing WTO rules on trade issues, the United States has issued a formal request asking China to hand over details of how and why it censors websites.
On Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk voiced concern over how foreign websites were censored in China, potentially giving domestic Chinese sites an unfair competitive advantage. The World Trade Organization has rules that stipulate goods and services of other WTO members must be treated as favorably as similar goods and services produced domestically.
Kirk said that if the United States can understand how and why China blocks foreign websites, those websites can then “adopt policies to avoid being blocked.”
With 500 million Chinese internet users, it’s no surprise that the United States is using trade as an attack angle, as US corporations would love to tap into the ever increasing market. Facebook and Twitter, both blocked in China, have rolled out Chinese interfaces in an attempt to corral the international Chinese speaking market, but still face the challenge that the “Twitter clone” Sina Weibo and “Facebook clone” Renren are available worldwide.
Though some say that Beijing’s block on Facebook and Twitter serves as a form of protectionism for China’s domestic social media, only a miniscule number of Chinese used Facebook and Twitter when they were unblocked in the past.
If given the opportunity, it is questionable if foreign websites would even want to “adopt [Beijing’s] policies to avoid being blocked.” Google chose to withdraw from China in a highly publicized dispute last year rather than submit to Beijing’s demands. The biggest websites blocked in China — YouTube, Facebook and Twitter — likewise all rely on the concept and promulgation of freedom of speech, and would therefore seem to be the last companies willing to acquiesce to Beijing’s whims for fear of how their userbases would react.
The request comes at a time of escalating tensions between the United States in China, particularly over the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, which seeks to address China’s “currency manipulation,” and was recently voted through the Senate.