Washington, Jan. 20, 2010
-- Google’s threats to shut down its China-based site because of censorship and cyber-attacks may ultimately prove more harmful to China than the Internet giant, said Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu
Wu noted that what has been dubbed “The Great Firewall of China” can also be viewed as a trade barrier, in spite of the lure of entering the lucrative Chinese market to reach, now the world’s fifth-largest economy.
“Blocking a site like Google or eBay can be considered a barrier to trade in services,” Wu said Wednesday during a panel discussion on the Google-China showdown in Washington at the New America Foundation
, where Wu is a fellow. “I think it’s an open question of how far you can develop your information sector while continuing to be censorious.”
Wu said while China has proven that an authoritarian regime can successfully develop a manufacturing sector and infrastructure, Internet censorship can damage its standing within the World Trade Organization, to which China first gained entrance in 2001.
Google came under criticism when it entered China in 2006 and agreed to the government’s censorship demands. But last week the company effectively drew a line in the sand, and threatened to walk away from the 360 million Internet users in China amid repeated hacking of its servers and weariness over censorship. The company has since softened its stance, though it seeks talks to find ways to operate without filters.
“In China, the media is a regulated industry and Internet companies are not always self-aware that they are media companies too,” Wu said.
Regarding the wisdom of Google entering China knowing it could be viewed as complicit with government censors, Wu said it was “worth a shot. The whole time there’s been an internal dispute at Google on whether this is hurting, and I think that is the right approach.”
Wu is perhaps best known for coining the term “net neutrality.” It embodies the principle that all information on the Internet should be treated equally, and that Internet service providers should not be allowed to offer more bandwidth to those who can pay more for faster service.
“People think net neutrality and censorship may be unrelated,” Wu said, “but the net neutrality debates are basically debates over what the Internet should be and how open and interconnected it should be.”
The discussion was held a day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to deliver a major policy address on Internet freedom. Her advisor on innovation, Alec Ross, was on the panel and said the issue went well beyond freedom of speech.
“It exists at the convergence of human rights issues, economic issues and security issues,” Ross said
At the same time, though, Wu questioned whether what ultimately happens in China would serve as a useful model for the Internet elsewhere.
“I think that we are seeing the world moving away from the global Internet to a series of national networks. When you’re in China, you’re basically on the Chinese Internet,” Wu said.
“It is a matter of choice how global or un-global the Internet is, and how interconnected it is. Countries do have the power to choose, and do it generally through the law.”
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