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Society & Culture

China’s Facebook Syndrome

Mar 16, 2011

Since 2009, China has blocked Facebook, the world’s largest online social media network. This year, Renren, one of China’s largest social networks, plans to raise $500 million on the New York Stock Exchange (NYX). So a Chinese social network can tap U.S. capital markets, but American social networks can’t tap Chinese consumer markets. Does that sound fair?

If Facebook grew corn or built cars, the cry would go out that China was putting up barriers to trade. That hasn’t happened because U.S. officials and politicians have typically viewed China’s Internet censorship as a human rights, not a trade, problem. That’s changing—slowly. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which negotiates trade deals, has been reviewing the idea of Internet censorship as a trade barrier at least since 2007. A nonbinding clause protecting “cross-border information flows” is part of the still-unratified Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. And on Mar. 7 the trade office told Bloomberg Businessweek it is “considering proposals” for stricter language in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement under negotiation with Pacific-Rim countries such as Vietnam, Australia, and Malaysia (not China).

Here’s the problem: While the USTR has been quietly inserting language in trade agreements, perhaps to cite as precedent in some future negotiation with China, it’s playing a game of inches. China’s Internet users, some 400 million-strong, make up the largest Internet market in the world, one U.S. social networks are largely prevented from competing in. But if the U.S. moved more aggressively and brought a trade case before the World Trade Organization, it could alienate China, disrupting trade in other products—and the outcome would be uncertain. “They are definitely trade barriers,” says James Bacchus, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig in Washington and a former WTO apellate judge. “Whether they are illegal under WTO trade laws is another matter.”

Brendan Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. Mark Drajem is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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