Web censorship "breaches WTO rules"
Governments could be told to use filtering rather than blanket bans
The World Trade Organisation could set its sights on internet censorship after a report found that it restricts free trade online.
Although a sovereign state has the right to restrict internet trade on moral grounds - such as with pornography, for example - a WTO ruling could set limits on blanket censorship and compel states to use more selective filtering, according to the study by the European Centre for International Political Economy think tank.
"Censorship is the most important non-tariff barrier to the provision of online services, and a case might clarify the circumstances in which different forms of censorship are WTO-consistent," say Brian Hindley and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama in the study.
"Many WTO member states are legally obliged to permit an unrestricted supply of cross-border internet services."
Internet censorship can have a serious impact on businesses, the report claims, noting how local search engine Baidu, which follows official rules on censorship, has overtaken global leader Google in the Chinese market.
The study says the WTO would have a strong case against governments that imposed disproportionate censorship that disrupted commercial activities by more than absolutely necessary to achieve the goals of blocking certain content.
Some states might argue such filtering would impose an impractical burden, but others, such as China with its "Great Firewall of China", already have well-staffed infrastructure in place for selective censorship.
"There is a good chance that a panel might rule that permanent blocks on search engines, photo-sharing applications and other services are inconsistent with (WTO services) provisions, even given moral and security exceptions," the report concludes.