WASHINGTON, Dec 10 (Reuters) - A California free speech group whose board of directors includes Google (GOOG.O) and Yahoo YHOO.O said on Monday it had asked U.S. trade officials to challenge China’s Internet restrictions as a violation of global trade rules.
The issue threatens to further strain U.S.-China trade relations if the U.S. Trade Representative’s office decides to take on the case. With China already the world’s second-largest Internet market with over 162 million Web users, the commercial stakes are huge.
“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,” Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said in a statement that came as top U.S. officials were in Beijing for economic talks.
“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.
Internet giants Google and Yahoo have seats on the coalition’s board of directors, but the bulk of the public interest group’s members are West Coast newspapers and other traditional media companies, Scheer said in an interview.
“All media that has an interest in being read in China are subject to censorship, or at risk of censorship,” Scheer said.
A recent report by Reporters Without Borders and the group China Human Rights Defenders said China’s Internet censors were becoming more systematic and sophisticated in how they monitor the Web and eradicate content deemed sensitive.
Yahoo has been heavily criticized for helping identify a Chinese dissident who was later imprisoned by the government. At U.S. congressional hearing last month, the company’s CEO apologized and said Yahoo was doing what it could to get the dissident, Shi Tao, released.
Tuesday marks the sixth anniversary of China’s entry in the World Trade Organization, as well as the start of three days of U.S.-China trade and economic talks in Beijing.
Those discussions are expected to be dominated by more traditional market-access issues, as well as the United States’ desire for Beijing to move more quickly to a more flexible, market-based currency exchange rate.
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.
The case relies on a legal theory developed by Columbia University Law Professor Timothy Wu, who argued in a law review article last year that WTO agreements on goods and services could be used to challenge government censorship of the Internet.
Editing by Eric Beech