As key committees in the House and Senate removed a hurdle to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations, lawmakers have taken a key step that could help secure access for both U.S. digital trade and human rights in Russia. Congress inserted language this month that will require the U.S. Trade Representative to report annually on Internet censorship as a trade barrier.
This is a positive step for human rights and for U.S. digital trade. CCIA had asked that those deciding on the future of trade with Russia consider its flagrant actions against Internet freedom that came days before Congressional committees were to vote on repealing Cold War legislation that linked human rights with trade.
Russia's lower and upper Parliament voted to create an Internet blacklist and to allow the government to shut down websites. The Russian legislation was cloaked as a measure that targeted at child pornography and sites promoting suicide or substance abuse, but the establishment of a government blacklist framework is a severe blow to Internet freedom and could be the first step on a path that leads to complete censorship and control of online information by an increasingly authoritarian Russian government.
As FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted, there is concern that Russia's stated goal of protecting children from harmful information "could lead to restricting access to valuable Internet content and services and chilling innovation, economic opportunity, as well as free expression."
There have been stirrings of popular unrest in Russia leading up to and since the parliamentary and presidential elections. These stirrings were informed and organized by utilizing social networks and the Internet. So there is concern Russia is laying the groundwork for political crackdowns with new legislation to protect them domestically and with new international regulation to be imposed by gaining more control of the Internet through the UN's International Telecommunications Union.
Once a mechanism for the government to blacklist and shut down websites is implemented, there is little doubt that those in power will seek to expand it to use against the citizen activism they find so troublesome.
At a time when it would seem to be in Russia's interest to make a favorable impression on human rights, they have passed legislation to greatly undermine Internet freedom, the 21st-century version of freedom of expression. If they embrace such censorship measures now, we can only assume that they will even more easily disregard international freedom norms once they achieve PNTR.
While Russia has not heretofore had systemic Internet blocking like China's Great Firewall, this legislation is a sign that it now seeks to follow that model and this resistance to the development should be a top diplomatic and trade priority.
Congress did respond admirably by adding digital trade language to legislation that would repeal human rights legislation and allow the normalization of trade with Russia. CCIA and those who value Internet freedom are grateful for the efforts of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as well as the House Ways & Means Committee Leadership for adding a provision in the bill that would require the United States Trade Representative to include data on obstacles to digital trade with Russia in their annual National Trade Estimates report.
While the report does not trigger trade retaliations in the way other tools like a Special 301 process would, this move to have USTR note Internet censorship as a trade barrier in such a report is a promising step.
Internet services are leading U.S. exports and Internet filtering and censorship is a non-tariff trade barrier, which would violate [World Trade Organization] agreements. While CCIA has testified in support of stronger provisions for digital trade in trade agreements with all our partners, we are encouraged that the U.S. is poised to hold Russia responsible for restricting the Internet.
But it's worth remembering that this is just one battle in a larger global struggle to protect Internet freedom both from countries that want greater control for their own political interests as well as those that want more regulation to combat social ills. The U.S. and all nations that value economic and political freedom must consistently hold Internet-restricting countries accountable, and make Internet freedom a top diplomatic and trade priority.