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13th Apr 2024

EU hits out at Chinese internet censorship on trade grounds

  • Analysts say Chinese censorship will become an increasing issue of concern for European companies (Photo: European Commission)

EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has hit out at Chinese online censorship, saying the government process constitutes an unfair trade barrier that may require WTO action.

The Dutch politician is also reported to have raised the sensitive subject with Chinese vice-premier Zhang Dejiang during a recent five-day visit to China.

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"It is one of those issues that needs to be tackled in the WTO and I'm aware it is at stake," Ms Kroes said in Shanghai on Monday (17 May), report newswires.

EU officials in Brussels sought to downplay the likelihood of any imminent WTO action, however. "The concrete base of launching a case isn't there at the moment," said one source who wished to remain anonymous.

But analysts suggest the Chinese practice of blocking online content, ranging from pornography to political dissent, is likely to become an issue of increasing concern for European firms.

Dubbed the "Great Firewall of China," they say Beijing uses the practice as a means of restricting foreign firms in favour of domestic companies.

Google became the highest profile example this year, with the company announcing it would no longer comply with Beijing's censorship requirements, subsequently rerouting its server to Hong Kong.

"At the moment, it's more a problem for American firms than EU firms as they are stronger in online services," says Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a Brussels-based think-tank.

"But the censorship is increasingly moving into telecoms, an area where Europe is strong, for example using spyware on mobile phones," he adds.

Political sensitivities may well prevent the EU or the US from taking a case at the WTO however, despite a strong case.

"When China joined the WTO [in 2001] it didn't ask for an exemption for online services," says Mr Erixon. "If there is a country willing to take the case to the WTO, I think they could win."

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