U.S. Could Challenge China on Google's Behalf at WTO

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Google made news in Washington on Tuesday as the Obama Administration is reportedly considering using the World Trade Organization to help Google in its censorship battle with China. Meanwhile, a leading U.S. Senator said he plans to introduce legislation punishing companies that cave in to censorship demands.

Google China WTO
Illinois Senator Richard Durbin said he plans to introduce a bill that would penalize Internet companies that violate customers' human rights at the demand of foreign governments. The Democrat made the announcement Tuesday, but offered few specifics, beyond saying that civil or even criminal penalties might be involved.

This is a wonderful thing as U.S. tech companies have a pretty sad record of protecting their overseas business at the expense of their customers' human rights. The bill appears to target search engine and social networking companies particularly.

"I recognize that the technology industry faces difficult challenges when they deal with repressive governments," Durbin said. "But we have a responsibility in the United States, and Congress shares in that responsibility, to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating freedom of expression."

Durbin spoke at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. Several companies were invited to present during the hearing, including Twitter, Facebook, McAfee--as well as Apple, which was recently hit by a scandal involving reports that underage workers have been used to build the company's products.

Of those invited, only Google agreed to appear. (If you want more details on the hearing, Grant Gross has written an excellent report.)

On the WTO front, the Obama Administration is reportedly considering whether to fight China in front of the World Trade Organization, where it would have to defend its actions publicly. The U.S. would charge that China's censorship is a barrier to free trade.

If used, this novel approach would be similar to the way law enforcement sometimes battles criminal rackets using charges not directly related to the primary crime (think Al Capone or the RICO statute).

Taken together, these actions--both at the discussion stage right now--show that at least some in the U.S. government want Internet companies to do a better job of representing American values in their overseas businesses.

The downside of this, of course, is the likelihood that some U.S. companies might lose business to foreign competitors that are willing to heed the demands of repressive regimes.

There is also the idea, which Google has previously favored, that remaining engaged with a repressive government is ultimately a better way to change its behavior than pulling out would be.

Google's stance against China has seemed to soften lately, though a WTO action by the U.S. government would put China is the position of looking bad on the global stage.

The threat of a WTO complaint might be enough to get China to work more cooperatively with Google, though that certainly must remain to be seen.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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