A study published a few days ago by think-tank ECIPE (European Centre for International Political Economy) investigates the future impact of international trade law on Internet censorship. It states that the World Trade Organization (WTO), which governs international trade, is likely to challenge Internet censorship in the near future. This is because Internet censorship can hamper international trade by restricting trade in online services. By examining WTO's official regulations and the current status of Internet censorship in various countries, the study concludes that WTO has a strong case against governments involved in blanket Internet censorship. Blanket Internet censorship, or disproportionate censorship, involves permanent bans and entire blockages of websites.
There are many examples of how blanket Internet censorship in China prevents fair trade in online services there. For instance, foreign-owned search engines are doing poorly in China. The study cites in 2002, Baidu (a search engine based in China) had only 3% of the Internet search market in China, while Google had 24%. However, currently Baidu has almost two-thirds of the market and has overtaken the global leader Google in the Chinese Internet search market. In contrast, in Japan where language barriers also exist but Internet censorship is significantly less prevalent, foreign-owned search engines have >90% of the market.
The reason for the great popularity of Baidu in China is not purely due to the quality of the product; the Chinese government also has a hand in it. Baidu closely follows China's official rules on Internet censorship by not returning controversial search results or mentioning any of the over 18,000 foreign websites that the Chinese government wants blocked. Thus, the Chinese government has a vested interest in making it the most widely-used search engine in China. Google's right (and the right of other foreign search services) to offer its services in China is compromised by this. In 2002, the government in China went so far as to make the URL and IP-address of Google re-route to Baidu. An Internet user in China, after typing in Google.com, would end up on Baidu.cn. It was a great way for the government to popularize Baidu, but it was clearly done at the cost of Google.
Based on the study's findings, WTO member states that implement blanket Internet censorship are violating WTO rules, which say member states can only engage in censorship and restrict trade when it is "necessary for protecting public morals" or "maintain[ing] public order." In addition, those measures must be necessary and minimize the disruption of trade. According to the study, WTO should have a major issue with blanket Internet censorship because it disrupts commercial activities by more than necessary in order to achieve the goals of the censoring government. The study proposes WTO may advocate proportionate Internet censorship, or selective filtering, as an alternative to blanket censorship. There are exceptions though, for some WTO member states that currently implement blanket censorship do not have the infrastructure in place for switching to selective filtering. However, countries like China already have this infrastructure, so in the eyes of WTO they would have no excuse not to abandon blanket Internet censorship for something less drastic. There are, of course, sovereignty issues involved in WTO forcing member states to restrict Internet censorship, and those would need to be dealt with.
If this study's analysis of WTO's ability to influence Internet censorship is correct, then it foreshadows the potential for WTO to reprimand member states engaging in excessive censorship of the web. Such a policy would impact many nations currently heavily engaged in Internet censorship, such as China, since membership to WTO is nearly universal. As a result, providing that WTO member states comply, in the future there will be a decline in Internet censorship.
This post relates to an earlier one that centered on Bill Gates' opinion that Internet censorship will fail because of its conflict with business requirements. It turns out that Gates may be correct. Businesses will probably not lead the fight against Internet censorship, like Gates believed, but the WTO will potentially lead the fight on behalf of business that provide international online services.