The missing trade war against China's digital protectionism

The missing trade war against China's digital protectionism
From Engadget - September 15, 2017

"China's extensive use of digital trade barriers ... have reshaped the production and sales of many global tech sectors as they have been forced to either adapt to China's restrictive and costly requirements or avoid the market entirely," said Nigel Cory, trade policy analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

Unlike the flashpoint over aluminum foil, there has so far not been a single trade case against China for the blocking of websites, apps, or platforms by what is the world's biggest internet market. This digital protectionism has resulted in the creation of China's own tech superpowers -- Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu -- which are now competing globally with their US counterparts. The new president has not yet shown any sign of taking on digital trade with China. Tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Amazon either have been silent or are openly courting or complying with Chinese regulators.

As China's digital economic power grows, the question is whether that will change, as freedom-of-expression groups and, increasingly, the tech industry have been asking. The goal: ensure that digital trade and information flows as freely in and out of China as do lightbulbs, shoes, or any of the other Chinese-made consumer goods found in stores across the US. Otherwise, some fear that the Chinese model of the internet -- state control of information and access -- may be copied by other countries for censorship and protectionism purposes. At risk is nothing more than the future of the internet as a global public forum.

What was initially the blocking of a few web pages that the Chinese government deemed sensitive, such as those about the Chinese occupation of Tibet or the Tiananmen Square Massacre, has turned into a massive filter between the Chinese web and the websites and apps of many foreign companies, news media, and NGOs. The Great Firewall has gotten progressively more sophisticated, and a major move came in 2009 when the growing social networks Facebook and Twitter were blocked, along with YouTube.

"Twitter and Facebook and other large social media apps, in the eyes of the authorities, simply cannot operate in China without censorship.

"Twitter and Facebook and other large social media apps, in the eyes of the authorities, simply cannot operate in China without censorship," said Charlie Smith, co-founder of, a nonprofit that provides analysis and circumvention tools for the Great Firewall. "This has everything to do with protecting the party's grip on power ... Helping domestic companies may be an additional side benefit, but it is not the main reason."

Facebook and Twitter were blocked in June 2009, just days before the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the pro-Democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, and alongside deadly riots in China's restive western province of Xinjiang.

Since then, the list of blocked sites and apps, as well as the number of restrictions on internet companies, has only grown, as has the Chinese digital market. Today, the vast majority of Chinese internet users are not just prohibited from searching about sensitive topics but ca not share files via Google Drive, chat with overseas coworkers through Slack or post anything, sensitive or not, to Facebook or Twitter.

Yet according to Matthew Schruers, the vice president for law and policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which counts Google, Facebook and Amazon as members, it is difficult to quantify how much China's trade barriers impact US companies.

"We are going to continue seeing countries restrict information access if they think there will be no trade consequences."


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