US hypocrisy on interent freedom?

Industry observers this week have been surprised by the apparent hypocrisy of the United States government in protesting to China about its erosion of Internet freedom and trade restrictions, when it is itself the subject of severe criticism for its double standards on Internet gambling, both in its laws and its activities at the World Trade Organisation.

The letter of protest, sent over the signatures of US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke - top officials in the Obama administration - has been triggered by the compulsory installation of censoring software on all new PCs distributed in China. Chinese government officials will decide on what websites to ban from time to time, giving considerable leeway for government censorship in any number of spheres of interest (see previous InfoPowa report).

This week the Wall Street Journal reported that the letter of protest complains the Chinese action constitutes censorship, interferes with free speech, compromises Internet security, and violates World Trade Organisation regulations.

The business publication reported that the US letter "...expressed that the U.S. government is seriously concerned, including wide-ranging concerns about the scope of the measure, the censorship implications, trade impact and security flaws which create serious problems for the IT industry and Chinese consumers."

US officials additionally met with China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology authorities, the WSJ reports, and complained that the blocking software would conflict with what a US Embassy spokesman called "internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression."

The irony is that these are all accusations that have with some justification been levelled at successive US administrations over their discriminatory laws and enforcement actions against the online gambling industry.

The US has been repeatedly accused of allowing some forms of domestic online gambling - on horseracing, fantasy sports and state lotteries - whilst enforcing bans and enforcement action on others; usually foreign competitors.

The US government was recently the subject of a European Commission investigation which found that unfair and discriminatory enforcement practices were carried out against European online gambling companies and executives by US officials, and in the World Trade Organisation the US has unilaterally abandoned its gambling obligations in the wake of a successful WTO action against it by Antigua and Barbuda.

The discriminatory use of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act to disrupt financial transactions between American gamblers and overseas Internet gambling companies has also been widely condemned.

The impact of US anti-online gambling legislation on the personal freedom of US citizens is also the subject of much discussion, interfering as it does with a personal pastime carried out in the privacy of the home by adults.

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