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WTO could be used to abolish censorship say researchers

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The World Trade Organisation has raised the delicious possibility of using its regulations to smite companies that censor their citizens' access to the internet - before admitting that this approach is unlikely to get very far.

A paper produced by the European Centre for International Political Economy observes that the internet and e-commerce has largely grown up outside the regulatory framework painfully built up to police international trade via the WTO.

But, the researchers argue, much internet activity can arguably be covered by the rules either due to the site selling something - eg, the selling of content or CDs, DVDs etc. - or because content is being supported by advertising.

While the trade regulations rarely explicitly mention online businesses, the researchers say that actions by governments to block or censor internet activity could be construed as breaching these rules.

As the researchers say: "This paper suggests that many WTO members are legally obliged to permit an unrestricted supply of cross-border internet services."

Of course, the WTO is there to regulate trade, not political, moral or religious dissent, and the researchers also detail the ways in which "repressive" regimes might defend themselves in front of a WTO panel.

For example, a richer government with technical nous, let's say China, might fall foul of the WTO if it imposes blanket blocks on material it finds objectionable. However the implication is that more "selective" blocks might get past the panels.

"Less resourceful countries, without means of filtering more selectively, and with a censorship based on moral and religious grounds, might be able to defend such bands in the WTO," they add.

The researchers accept that the WTO would remain a "weak" option for abolishing censorship, and accept that targeted countries may simply withdraw from their obligations.

The researchers also make the point that it is governments that raise issues with the WTO. Therefore any group or company wanting to highlight censorship by a given government, first has to convince its own government to raise the issue at the WTO. This will surely be no problem - as long as the target country doesn't have something desirable, such as, say, oil, gas, wood, rare minerals, diamonds, precious metals, etc.

Still, we can be sure that censorship's days are likely to be numbered in Belgium and Iceland. ®

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