WASHINGTON – Google on Monday urged Western nations to challenge a growing list of Internet restrictions in China and around the world as a violation of global trade rules and to negotiate new trade deals to protect the free flow of online information.
"More than 40 governments now engage in broad-scale restriction of online information, a tenfold increase from just a decade ago," the search engine giant said in a policy brief that follows a censorship battle with China this year.
"These actions unnecessarily restrict trade, and left unchecked, they will almost certainly get worse."
With worldwide Internet commerce projected to soon reach $1 trillion, it is important to thousands of U.S. companies that China and other countries only be allowed to censor or restrict information in exceptional circumstances, Google said.
The California-based company, which in the first quarter of 2010 earned more than half of its revenues outside the United States, has had rocky relations with Chinese authorities since it announced in January it would no longer censor search results in mainland China.
It began rerouting visitors to its China website to a separate uncensored site in Hong Kong, but eventually changed the setup so mainland China users had to click on a link to go to the Hong Kong site.
China is the world's largest Internet market with 420 million users.
Google had about 25 percent of the market in the third quarter, a distant second to Baidu, a Chinese company that had about 73 percent, according to technology research firm IResearch.
In its paper, Google argued that government restrictions on the free flow of information threatened a broad array of U.S. companies, including other well-known Internet names like Facebook, Twitter, eBay and Amazon.
It accused China of tilting the marketplace in favor of Baidu, and said governments like Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan and others have used one or more of four basic strategies to control information on the Internet:
-- Blocking access to a search engine or other Internet services or specific keywords, Web pages and domains;
-- Using licensing requirements or other means to force companies to remove certain search results;
-- Requiring certain websites to be removed or making whole domains invisible to users;
-- Encouraging self-censorship through means "including surveillance and monitoring, threats of legal action and informal methods of intimidation."
Washington should insist regulation of the Internet follow basic principles of the World Trade Organization's services pact, which require rules be clearly stated, administered in a way that does not discriminate against foreign companies and that decisions can be reviewed, Google said.
Governments that invoke a "public order" exception for an Internet restriction should be pressed, consistent with WTO rules, to explain why the measure is necessary to achieve the government's objective and to show why a less restrictive alternative would not achieve the same result, Google said.
The company also urged the United States, the European Union and other governments to take "concrete steps to ensure that rules in the next generation of trade agreements reflect new challenges of Internet trade."
This should be pursued as part of the Doha round of world trade talks and in bilateral and regional free trade pacts that the United States and the EU are negotiating, Google said.