Free Speech and Free Trade

Rebecca Mackinnon, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong (who is also a former Berkman fellow, co-founder of Global Voices, and CNN bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo) has a long thoughtful post about the effort to establish social responsibility standards for international internet companies that must grapple with issues of censorship and privacy in less democratic countries, notably China. (Derek and I have talked about this ongoing effort before, here and here.)

Her whole post is well worth reading, but one aspect that caught my eye was a relatively new argument that censorship in these other countries might constitute an unfair trade practice. Rebecca points to this AP story reporting that Google is casting censorship as a free trade issue. She goes on to comment:

Arbitrary, un-transparent censorship policies by governments are indeed an obstacle to fair business competition. When you have vague laws (making it illegal to post content “spreading rumors” for example), the result is that companies with the best personal relationships with government regulators win (in other words, local companies always have the advantage over foreign companies). … Based on my understanding, Google.cn determines what results to censor out of its China search results by constantly running computers connected to Chinese internet service providers inside China to test what sites are blocked by China’s ISP’s. Then they de-list those URL’s on Google.cn. The idea being that since China’s regulations are so vague and unspecific, the best way to interpret them is to see what Chinese ISP’s are being blocking – presumably in compliance with China’s vague law – then block those. After all, why should Google be required to block more heavily than Chinese ISP’s? (I wish Google would be more transparent with its users about what content it is blocking and why, and according to what authority.) But then they get called into meetings with regulators and get the finger shaken at them. And they are not told specifically what they did wrong. Rather they are told vaguely to do a better job at understanding the Chinese system. That doesn’t sound to me like a fair business environment. It makes sense that a company would use whatever means available to lobby for regulatory reform that would create a more level competitive playing field.

This is fascinating. The same international free trade mechanism that is used to spread a Western intellectual property regime to other countries could also be used to spread free-speech values!

Yet, as Rebecca articulates very persuasively, it makes a lot of sense. And the precise problem is not quite the repression of speech itself, but the failure to apply the rules even-handedly and candidly. Presumably, if China codified its rules about censorship and enforced them across the board, this would be acceptable for free-trade purposes even if it might be somewhat worse for free expression. Even then, there would be a benefit, though: forcing regimes like China to specify the exact nature of their speech restrictions may force some acknowledgment of the repression these governments impose. It would still allow filtering that corresponded with national values — but wit hthe critical addition of transparency.

Of course, Google is acting in its own self-interest to pursue this free-trade argument for free speech, but the results could be decidedly positive for human rights. Given the beating the company’s reputation has taken of late, this has the potential to be a double-win for Google, both opening markets and improving its image.

3 Responses to “Free Speech and Free Trade”

  1. [...] government censorship of speech is a defacto trade barrier which works against American companies. Bill McGeveran explores/summarizes. This may be the only way to actually resolve the problem Google is trying to tackle, but it is [...]

  2. Leave it to Google to always come out on top. ;-)

  3. Very creative and open minded thoughts, appreciate it.