Earlier this week, Reuters reported that U.S. trade officials are evaluating whether the legal implications of China's internet censorship could give rise to an International Trade Law case before the WTO. If successful, the case would allow other countries to raise tariffs against Chinese exports.
“It (China's internet censorship policy) is less of a trade issue than it is a freedom of information issue,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk considered in an interview with Bloomberg radio last month. He has more recently commented that his office are "trying to make our own determination whether we believe in fact this is not WTO compliant."
"The U.S Government is not powerless to influence China's policies for censoring the internet," says Peter Scheer, Executive Director of The First Amendment Coalition, a California based public interest non profit organization. The Coalition argues that the "Great Firewall of China" is "an illegal restraint on international trade because it bars foreign companies from competing, via the internet, in the vast Chinese market."
Zheng Zhihai, general secretary of the China Society of World Trade Organisation Studies responded stating "If someone intends to challenge China's right to govern its Internet by resorting to WTO rules, they are apparently misguided and bound to fail" .The case would the the first of its kind presented at the WTO and censorship does not necessarily fall foul of International Trade rules.
The European Centre for International Political Economy concedes this in working paper published last year but adds that it may " have the potential to discipline the clumsier manifestations of censorship: outright blockages by a government that is capable of enforcing selective filtering for example, and will persuade governments to use more selective and less trade-disruptive means."
The lack of precedent surrounding the case combined with the length of time a potential case would take to be resolved has led to Kirk describing the potential legal battle as an "uncertain path." As a result, the preferred method of resolution is still political interaction. The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is held later this spring.