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USTR mulling WTO case on China web barriers: lawyer

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. trade officials have asked for more information as they weigh whether to pursue a case against Chinese Internet restrictions that impede Google and other companies, an attorney for a U.S. free speech group said on Friday.

"They've asked us for more detail about it. We are trying to put that together right now," said Gilbert Kaplan, a partner at King and Spalding, which represents the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday challenged Beijing and other authoritarian governments to end Internet censorship, an issue that has strained U.S.-China ties after Google threatened to leave China due to hacking incidents and web restrictions.

The U.S. free speech group, known then as the California First Amendment Coalition, first approached the U.S. Trade Representative's office in late 2007 with the idea of challenging China's barriers to Internet access at the World Trade Organization.

It gave the trade office, run at the time by the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush, "a very extensive white paper, or memo, describing the WTO violations that the 'Great Firewall' caused, and that were actionable in our view under the WTO, and a request that USTR begin a WTO case against China regarding the Firewall," Kaplan said.

Although no case was filed, Kaplan said U.S. trade officials never ruled out that possibility.

"We're continuing to request that they start that case. That dialogue is continuing," Kaplan said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative's office had no immediate comment.

A study by the Brussels-based think tank ECIPE in November called government censorship the biggest trade barrier that Internet companies face.

Many countries censor the Internet for political or moral reasons. China has developed one of the most pervasive methods. In Cuba, all unauthorized surfing is illegal, while many Western countries limit access to child porn sites.

A WTO case could help "clarify the circumstances in which different forms of censorship are WTO-consistent," ECIPE said.

RELUCTANT ASSOCIATION

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said USTR's main problem with bringing a case two years ago was that U.S. companies were reluctant to publicly associate themselves with a challenge.

"It was very difficult at that time to get companies to cooperate with USTR. Not because they weren't supportive of the objective in theory. They were. But rather at that time they feared reprisals from the government of China," Scheer said.

"I think that fear was and remains frankly understandable," Scheer said. That is why it would be a "very positive development" if the Obama administration were to decide on its own to bring a case against Beijing, he said.

Nicole Wong, associate general counsel at Google, sits on the coalition's board of directors, though Scheer said she does not formally represent her company in that capacity.

China agreed as part of its commitments to join the WTO in 2001 that U.S. service companies would have the same access in China as their own companies.

"We believe that applies to the Internet and Internet companies," Kaplan said.

China's web restrictions in effect force U.S. Internet companies to "put servers and hardware in China, rather than doing what they do everywhere else in the world, which is use their U.S. base," Kaplan said.

"If we try to serve the Chinese market from the U.S. or anywhere outside the Great Firewall, our Internet access is so slow that no one will use our sites," he said.

WTO rules also require countries to follow transparent and understandable procedures, he said.

Instead, China "is very randomly stopping our Internet companies and our Internet access with no prior notice and no set of regulations," Kaplan said.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Lynn in Geneva, editing by Philip Barbara)

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