Internet Freedom and Jackson-Vanik

BY Ken Kurokawa
February 10, 2011

One of the most prominent trade issues in 2012 centers on Congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia.  While extending PNTR to Russia would provide some economic benefits to both countries following Russia’s WTO entry, we believe that there is another aspect to this issue to be considered: that of Internet Freedom.

In order for the U.S. to extend PNTR to Russia, Congress would have to vote to repeal application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, originally enacted in 1974 to prohibit normal trade relations with the USSR and other Communist bloc countries that violated human rights, specifically by restricting the emigration of dissidents.  Jackson-Vanik was intended for leverage against human rights violations and restrictions on freedom.

During the Cold War, the U.S. was a beacon of hope to those behind the Iron Curtain and the champion of freedom.  The Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR but Russia has increasingly seen a return to authoritarianism.  It seems that the tide of freedom in Russia has been receding rather than advancing.  Now is not the time to reward Russian policies with trade benefits.  Now is the time for the U.S. to again call attention to what Jackson-Vanik stood for: freedom and human rights.

CCIA has long characterized Internet freedom as nothing less than freedom of expression in the 21st century, and has opposed Internet censorship efforts by governments such as China, which continues to thumb its nose at the concept of Internet freedom a decade after its own WTO accession.  As we take stock of our relationship with Russia at this pivotal moment, should we not take the opportunity to push for specific commitments on the issue of Internet freedom in exchange for PNTR?  In recent months, there have been stirrings of popular unrest in Russia around the parliamentary elections held in December.  There have been reports of online monitoring and disruptions by the government against Internet activism, and government officials have made statements in support of Internet surveillance and control.  Faced with a potential democratic awakening in the very country that necessitated the enactment of Jackson-Vanik, we must honor our commitment to human rights and freedom.

For years, CCIA has called for the U.S. government to treat Internet censorship as a trade barrier.  Restrictions on Internet Freedom almost always cause significant collateral damage to electronic commerce and trade, as filtering and blocking the flow of information on the Internet not only restricts freedom of expression but also can have real trade consequences in discriminating against foreign-based services and content.  The fact that the issue of Internet freedom straddles the two worlds of human rights and trade makes it a highly appropriate subject to consider in debating the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, a provision that sought to link trade to our commitment to the cause of human liberty.

There are some who say that Jackson-Vanik is an outdated relic of the Cold War.  Freedom is not a relic, nor is the struggle for it ever outdated.  On the contrary, our support for freedom is a timeless and central part of what our nation stands for, and a discussion of Internet freedom in Russia is both appropriate and necessary as we consider whether to extend PNTR to them.

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