Internet Censorship Is a Trade Issue Too

China is unfairly restraining trade by blocking Facebook and other U.S. websites, a former White House official says.

Correction: This article has been updated to correctly state the location of Friday's speech. 

Government Internet censorship doesn’t just hurt people inside a country; it may also damage companies outside that country, a former White House official said Friday.

When China and other nations block the websites of U.S. companies but the United States doesn’t respond in kind there’s a strong argument that creates an unfair trade barrier, said Andrew McLaughlin, former White House deputy chief technology officer.

He cited the example of Facebook, which is blocked in China, and Renren, a Chinese social networking service colloquially known as the “Facebook of China.” Renren became publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

“At the same time the U.S. sits here and watches Facebook get blocked in China, we allow Renren . . . to come to our capital markets to raise $780 million in an IPO from investors we’re facilitating,” McLaughlin said. “We give them access to our markets; they block us from their markets. That seems like a classic trade barrier and one that the United States should take seriously.”

McLaughlin began advocating that censorship be treated as a trade issue during the Bush Administration when he was director of global public policy at Google, he said. Since then the office of the U.S. Trade Representative has begun to take the idea more seriously in discussions, he said, though the government has not lodged any formal complaints at the World Trade Organization.

The idea has also become popularized elsewhere in the private sector, including by the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group.

McLaughlin previously worked for Tumblr and sits on the boards of Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation. He was speaking at a State Department sponsored event on Internet freedom hosted by The George Washington University.

“The United States makes tons of money as a country off information,” he said. “Broadly construed, that includes movies, books, newspapers and magazines as well as Internet Services. And censorship is the top trade barrier we face as an industry.”

(Image via Jirsak/Shutterstock.com)

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