The EU’s Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, raised concerns with Chinese tech policies during this week’s EU-China Summit in Beijing. Malmström warned that China’s “limits to online freedom … get in the way of today’s most dramatic innovations.”
“The power of the Internet is that it connects people in a single global network. Barriers to that, whether by banning certain platforms or by requiring storage of content locally, impede China’s economic progress as much as freedom of expression. And it limits your access to other views and opinions, to the exchange of experiences with other people,” Malmström said. The EU’s top trade official finally called China’s laws on national security, non-governmental organisations and cybersecurity “steps backward.”
58 percent of respondents to a recent European Union Chamber of Commerce in China survey said the Chinese censorship of Internet access significantly impacted their ability to do business in China. This is a 17 percent increase from just last year.
The EU’s linking of online censorship to trade, echoes the sentiment of the United States Trade Representative (USTR). The 2016 USTR trade estimate report on foreign trade barriers, clearly singled out China’s online censorship. The report concluded that “China’s filtering of cross-border Internet traffic has posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both Internet sites themselves, and users who often depend on them for their businesses. Outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened over the past year, with 8 of the top 25 most trafficked global sites now blocked in China.” These sentiments in turn echoed views that European policymakers have voiced in the past (, ).
Academics and the tech sector have repeatedly warned that China’s blocking and filtering of online services constitutes a trade violation. Over the last decade, voices in academia and industry have argued that impediments to the free flow of data violate various World Trade Organization rules (, , ). As of yet however, no trade case against an Internet-restricting country has found its way to the WTO.