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WASHINGTON -- Google has leapt back into the international discussion over Internet freedom, releasing a lengthy policy paper alleging that governments that restrict access to online content are erecting trade barriers that impair the global economy.
In the paper (available here in PDF format), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) alleged that China has violated its obligations under the World Trade Organization, and called on the United States and its international partners to make Internet freedom a pillar of their trade policies.
"Given the tremendous stakes involved, policymakers must develop and aggressively implement a proactive agenda that aligns Internet policy with the core principles of international trade," Google wrote in the paper.
The company argued that as businesses depend increasingly on the Internet, any policies that limit access or stifle the distribution of content on emerging platforms is a risk to free trade.
Specifically, the company argued that the 1995 WTO General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), which included language extending free-trade obligations to services, including Internet-based applications, explicitly bars countries from imposing arbitrary restrictions on the flow of information from foreign-based Internet firms.
"Indeed, decisions by the WTO Appellate Body in recent cases, especially in the case of China's regulation of the import of various media content, demonstrate that information restrictions are subject to GATS disciplines," the company argued.
"Governments should honor existing international obligations including under the World Trade Organization Agreement, prevent trade barriers created by information regulation, and develop new international rules that provide enhanced protection against these trade barriers of the 21st century."
Google's latest salvo in the fight against global online censorship follows a high-profile standoff with Chinese authorities earlier this year, which came in response to a wave of cyberattacks alleged to have emanated from that country and the targeting of Chinese dissidents using services such as Gmail.
In January, Google said that it would stop censoring Internet search results as directed by Chinese law. China blasted the company in state media reports, and Google eventually moved its servers off the mainland to Hong Kong, redirecting users to the offshore site beyond the reach of Chinese censorship laws.
"That really put Google on a collision course with the China's government," Lawrence Liu, senior counsel for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said at a recent policy forum.
"The Google case also highlighted this nexus between trade and human rights, the issue being that those unwilling to censor or censor as vigorously as the Chinese officials would like them to, risk market access and market share," Liu said.
Throughout Google's pubic sparring with China over access to content and services such as YouTube and the Blogger platform, the company positioned open access to the Web as both a human-rights and economic issue, but this week's paper is perhaps its lengthiest public exposition on the latter to date.
"The need to protect the free flow of information online is more clear than ever," Google wrote in the paper "A confluence of trends has created a new international trade and business environment that calls for governments to ensure that the Internet remains open for global business."
Google Public Policy Director Bob Boorstin announced the new policy paper in a post to the company blog, citing a study by the Open Net Initiative that found that more than 40 governments are imposing wide-ranging restrictions to online content.
Boorstin is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion in Washington later this week at a diplomatic conference cosponsored by the State Department, which has taken steps to incorporate Internet freedom issues in its talks with foreign officials.