The Office of U.S. Trade Representative has asked the Chinese government to explain its policies related to blocking some websites in an effort to gauge the impact on U.S. small businesses operating in China, the agency said Wednesday.
USTR, which filed the request under World Trade Organization rules, said "a number of U.S. businesses" have raised concerns about disruptions of their websites in China.
"While the United States believes that the best Internet policy is to encourage the free flow of information globally, the United States' WTO request relates specifically to the commercial and trade impact of the Internet disruptions," USTR said in a press release. "Accordingly, the United States is asking China to provide details that will allow a fuller understanding of the legal and policy rules relevant to the accessibility of commercial websites in China."
Websites of businesses based in the U.S. and other countries are "sometimes inaccessible" in China, causing problems for the companies as they try to do business in the country, the USTR said. "The United States would like to better understand China's rules governing website blocking so that service suppliers based outside of China may adopt appropriate policies to avoid encountering this problem," the USTR said.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the USTR's request.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, a U.S. tech trade group, praised U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk for submitting the questions to China.
Kirk "took a huge first step in the process of holding China accountable for imposing unlawful barriers to international trade," Ed Black, CCIA's president and CEO, said in a statement. "Not only are these measures a concern of freedom of expression advocates worldwide, but they also have massive economic consequences that tend to be felt disproportionately by U.S. Internet companies. Chinese Internet restrictions are not transparent, lack procedures that provide parties due process and are often applied more broadly and arbitrarily against non-Chinese companies."
The USTR asked several questions, including:
-- Who or what ministry is responsible for determining if and when a foreign website should be blocked in China?
-- What are the guidelines and criteria for blocking access to foreign websites? How often are these guidelines and criteria changed or published? Where are these guidelines published? Are they made public in advance of their implementation? Which ministries are responsible for drafting them?
-- What is the process for implementing a restriction on a website? How does the relevant entity determine whether an entire website should be blocked or only services or content deemed illegal?
-- Is the blocking implemented directly by the government, or indirectly by Internet service providers and/or telecommunications companies?
-- If blocking is carried out by ISPs or telecommunications companies, are these actions typically implemented through written governmental orders? If so, which governmental organs are authorized to issue such orders?
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.