Commerce secretary: Threats to Internet freedom increasing, can hamper growth

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke warned the increasing number of foreign government policies aimed at restricting the flow of information on the Internet could serve as an informal trade barrier and hamper economic growth during remarks at Georgetown University on Thursday.

Locke said a growing number of countries are passing laws that censor content or hamper the flow of commerce online, often in order to benefit specific market interests. He said such policies jeopardize the prosperity that many countries have enjoyed from the Web to date.

"While we work to ensure that the Internet remains an open marketplace for ideas and beliefs, it must also remain an open marketplace for business. In recent years, however, we have seen a significant up-tick in threats to the free flow of information on the Internet," Locke said.

"At the Commerce Department, we feel strongly that the Internet must remain, as much as possible, a worldwide open market, one where vigorous competition is allowed to thrive and where trade barriers are negligible."

He referred specifically to the example of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, which allows users to place phone calls over their Internet connections.

"In many cases, VoIP calls can cost a fraction as much as traditional telephone calls, and the technology has tremendous potential," Locke said. "But some countries are erecting barriers to Voice Over IP, and these barriers threaten to stifle this incredibly promising technology."

Locke said the Obama administration has prioritized removing such restrictions on Internet technology can result in markets being closed to American companies. But he acknowledged the issue has heavy diplomatic, economic and political implications.

"Internet restrictions imposed by sovereign nations pose a real quandary; whether or not they amount to non-tariff trade barrier remains an active question," Locke said.

To explore the issue further the Commerce Department's Internet Policy Task Force is collecting input from the public and industry on what types of foreign policies are restricting the flow of information online, what impact they have and how to best engage other nations to resolve the situation.