Forbes | 19 July 2007
Google’s Free Trade Agenda
Washington, D.C. — For the past several months, Google has been quietly lobbying the U.S. government to include restrictions against Internet censorship as a stipulation in free trade agreements with other countries.
The California-based Internet giant says that barriers to the free flow of information over the Web restrict commerce and economic development, and should therefore be considered barriers to free trade as well.
"Given the recent history that we’ve seen with respect to certain countries starting to censor the free flow of information over the Internet, we believe it really should be a top priority for our government," says Pablo Chavez, Google’s Washington policy counsel.
It’s a new approach to an area of international trade that is still largely undefined. If an Internet company operating in a foreign country is suddenly exposed to censorship, it has virtually no recourse. Google, it seems, wants to get the rules in writing up front.
There’s also a potentially tremendous financial concern. If left unattended to, Web censorship could end up costing Google and other Internet companies a bucket of cash if they have to comply with foreign governments’ whims over Internet content.
Chavez says he does not know to what extent—if at all—Google’s profits have been dented by censoring efforts, such as Thailand’s recent ban on the company’s YouTube video site. But according to John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, complying with government censoring efforts is a "wildly expensive thing" for Internet firms to do.
According to a 2007 study by the OpenNet Initiative—a collaborative effort by researchers at Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Toronto to investigate Internet censoring—as many as 26 countries engage in some type of Web censoring. Most of these countries are in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet states. By contrast, a 2002 study found that only two countries censored the Web, says Palfrey, who is also an investigator at OpenNet.
So far Google is alone in leading the charge against Internet censoring—which is odd, since censoring efforts would seem to affect tech firms on the whole. Microsoft is not part of the lobbying effort and a Yahoo! spokesman declined to comment for this story. Even the office of the U.S. Trade representative will only confirm that Google has met with USTR officials to discuss the matter.
Some trade experts speculate that the silence among other companies is due to the politically sensitive nature of the issue. Last year a Congressional panel took the company (along with Microsoft and Yahoo!) to task for complying with China’s censoring efforts.
Chavez says the idea is still in its nascent stages and while Google has "floated the idea informally to other companies," it has not asked them to participate in its lobbying efforts on the trade issue.
The company has also not said specifically how it seeks to alter trade agreements or which free trade deals would be affected. Google first alluded to its anti-censoring efforts last month in a blog post on its Web site, after the Associated Press ran a story on the issue. Strangely, the discussion quickly died down.
Since then, it has had another round of discussions with officials at the State Department (which typically has jurisdiction over censorship issues), USTR and on key Congressional committees.
In its recent negotiations, Google is pushing four key points: that free information flows are important for the global economy, that trade should not be restricted by the regulation of the Internet, that all players on the Web are treated fairly and that laws should be put in place to make any Internet restrictions transparent.
Google says it has received a positive response from government officials.
The company might have picked just the right time to make its case. The Bush administration has four free trade agreements pending in Congress right now, and it is not likely to send any more to the Hill because lawmakers did not renew the president’s fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals.
In addition, the Doha round of multilateral trade talks is all but dead. Finally, the issue has some precedent—the pending free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea (the world’s most wired country) includes a provision to encourage the free flow of information, though no censorship issues exist between the two countries.
All of this gives Google and anyone else who wants to jump into the discussion time to build its case without the pressure of inserting anti-censorship language into impending trade deals.
"It’s a long-term project and we are fully cognizant of that," says Chavez. "We’re not thinking there’s going to be an overnight solution."