US Considers WTO Option For Google China Dispute

Google’s dispute with China shows no sign of diminishing, after the search engine giant suggested that the issue should be brought before the WTO

The ruckus over the Chinese hack of Google and continuing concerns over Chinese censorship, looks set to continue after the search engine giant suggested to the US Congress that the issue should be brought before the WTO (World Trade Organisation).

And in another development, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is threatening to introduce legislation that would slap civil or criminal liabilities on Internet companies that do not take steps to protect human rights.

After a 2 March hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Durbin, examined IT industry business practices in Internet-restricting countries, Bloomberg reported the Obama administration is considering forcing the issue before the WTO. The effort would force China to publicly discuss the issue.

Durbin, meanwhile, urged Internet firms to join the voluntary code of conduct known as the GNI (Global Network Initiative). The code of conduct, which regulates the actions of technology firms operating in countries that restrict the internet, currently has only three members: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The group has shown little progress.

“With a few notable exceptions, the information technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces, Durbin said in a statement. “As a result, I plan to introduce legislation that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability.”

In February, Durbin sent letters to 30 technology companies asking them to join the GNI and seeking more information about their business practices in China. Only three companies – AT&T, McAfee and Skype, have committed to discuss joining GNI. One company, Websense, has indicated that they will join the GNI if the membership fee is waived.

Facebook, Twitter, HP, and Apple were all asked to testify and refused. McAfee agreed to testify at the hearing but withdrew late last week.

“I recognise that the IT industry faces difficult challenges when dealing with repressive governments, but Congress has a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating the fundamental human rights of internet users around the globe,” Durbin said.

Durbin’s panel held its first hearing on global Internet freedom in May 2008. At that hearing, members heard testimony which highlighted the actions of repressive governments around the world and their efforts to censor the internet and persecute human rights and democracy advocates who express their views online.

Since then, the scale and scope of Internet censorship has increased dramatically. The number of countries which censor Internet content has grown to over 40.

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