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Leveraging Trade as a Tool Against Censorship

An article in the Washington Post today outlines how some senior U.S. officials are leaning on trade issues to pressure China on its recent mandate that all computers sold in that country must come pre-installed with Web-filtering software. Computer experts that have examined the Chinese developed Web-filtering software have found a laundry list of problems, from security holes to questions about the breadth of the filtering process.

U.S. computer makers are rightly concerned about having to pre-install a piece of virtually unknown and untested software that could damage their product on every machine sold into China. In letters to the Chinese government, both the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke linked China’s mandate to install the web filtering software, known as “Green Dam,” to U.S. trade policy. USTR Kirk is quoted in the Post piece saying the Chinese demand “poses a serious barrier to trade.”

We have long held the position that there is an important role for Congress to play in ensuring that Internet freedom be fully incorporated into U.S. human rights and foreign policy and that it is a central focus of diplomacy, trade and foreign aid. However, there is considerable “policy incoherence” between the U.S. positions on human rights and its policies on trade and aid. A good example of this “policy incoherence” is giving “most favored nation” trade status to countries such as China and Vietnam, both with poor human rights records that relentlessly pursue state-sponsored campaigns of Internet surveillance and censorship.

If Internet freedom is to be given a high priority in foreign policy and trade, as we believe it should (Secretary Locke and USTR Kirk’s statement to China are encouraging steps), then it will be critical for the U.S. to have the political will to take on its current culture of “policy incoherence” and deliver a message that doesn’t reprimand with one hand and reward with the other.