Half a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded Internet freedom and criticized China in a high-profile speech in Washington, D.C. A few weeks later, a Global Internet Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill was formed.
But the Chinese authorities weren't exactly paying attention. Since Clinton's speech, China has reaffirmed its commitment to state censorship, required online map providers to obtain licenses and host their images inside the country, blocked Foursquare, and announced new rules for media companies. Earlier this week, China made Google rethink how it could move some search operations to Hong Kong.
If anything, China's Internet restrictions have grown ever-tighter. In March, when Google began publishing a daily dashboard of China service availability, mobile and Web search was completely accessible. As of early July, both are partially blocked.
Some U.S. politicians responded this week by announcing legislation that would try to pressure China and other nations with Internet restrictions into becoming better Net-citizens by invoking two very old techniques: public shame and trade sanctions.
A bill introduced Thursday, the One Global Internet Act (PDF), would require the federal government to identify "priority" Internet concerns overseas. Then the U.S. Trade Representative would be directed to begin an investigation under the 1974 Trade Act, which authorizes sanctions and retaliatory actions.
Section 301 of the 1974 law permits retaliation when a "practice of a foreign country is unreasonable or discriminatory and burdens or restricts U.S. commerce," according to the USTR. If the problem is severe enough, retaliation becomes mandatory.
"Preserving an open and truly global Internet should be a top priority for the U.S. government," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat whose district includes the heart of Silicon Valley. Lofgren's legislation is cosponsored by seven fellow Democrats and two Republicans, including Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
The idea of using trade sanctions as a way to batter down the Great Firewall of China isn't exactly new. The California First Amendment Coalition has been making this point since at least 2007, as has a European think tank that claims members of the World Trade Organization are "legally obliged to permit an unrestricted supply of crossborder Internet services." Trade scholars, however, have been skeptical this approach would work.
Lofgren's legislation also would create a "Task Force on the Global Internet," with representatives of the State Department, Commerce Department, Defense Department, and USTR. (Then again, the Bush administration created the "Global Internet Freedom Task Force" back in 2006; it, too, coordinated with "other U.S. government agencies and the National Security and National Economic Councils"--with not much to show by the time it stopped meeting.)
To be sure, an investigation by the USTR doesn't mean sanctions or a trade war is automatic. The agency published a 600-page report in March saying that China maintains many non-tariff barriers that discriminate against foreign manufacturers, but took no other action. Many members of Congress have been complaining that China's currency is valued too low--which makes exports more affordable for Americans--but no trade war has erupted.
China's commerce minister has warned the United States that it had the most to lose in a trade war. But, Chen Deming said a few months ago, according to the Washington Post, such a move would benefit neither nation. "Both sides need to stay cool," Chen said. "We need to sit down and talk."