Google-China Dispute May End Up at WTO

The search giant claims censorship and hacking incidents are an international trade issue and urges the Obama administration to seek a World Trade Organization forum to publicly discuss the issue. Sen. Dick Durbin has his own solution: legislation that would mandate civil or criminal liabilities on Internet companies that do not take steps to protect human rights.

The dispute between China and Google over recent attacks on its networks expanded on two fronts March 2 with the search giant suggesting to Congress the issue should be brought before the World Trade Organization, while 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 March 2 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Durbin, which 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 recognize 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 more than 40.