<IT WORLD> Free trade, when it suits
By Martin J Young
HUA HIN, Thailand - Search giant Google, which in January threatened to ax its
China-based unit if the government in Beijing did not let the company present
searches without self-censoring the results, has found backing in the Barack
Obama administration, which has shown an inclination to take China's Internet
censorship to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an unfair barrier to trade.
Beijing's policies on the Internet have come under the scrutiny of the US Trade
Representative's office, which is consulting with industry groups that claim
China's web restrictions discriminate against US Internet companies and online
commerce. By forcing companies to filter their content, China is effectively
favoring domestic businesses, in violation of commitments made when China
joined the WTO in 2001.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association (which
includes Google, Microsoft, eBay and Red Hat) and the California-based First
Amendment Coalition, a non-governmental organization supporting free speech,
argue that China's web filtering and firewall rules are not applied in an
impartial and uniform way.
Even if the WTO considered the issue it would be unlikely to come to a finding
in the near term, if at all. Internet censorship is not technically a violation
of the WTO, according to Warren Maruyama, a former general counsel of the US
Trade Representative's office. The move, however, is a shrewd strategy that
other countries may follow if they are considering doing business with China
that involves the Internet, which in today's world is just about everything.
Google's plans to roll out "fiber-to-the-home" broadband connections of up to 1
gigabit to select cities across the US have prompted the mayor of Topeka,
Kansas, to rename the town Google. Cities wishing to be involved in Google's
high-speed link-up have until March 26 to inform the company of their interest.
Naturally the name change will not be a permanent fixture; it will revert to
Topeka at the end of the month. It is possible, however, that other interested
cities such as Michigan and Louisiana may attempt similar stunts in efforts to
woo the Internet giant. Next week, look out for Mouseagain, Laptopana and maybe
even LAN Angeles on the map.
The danger of having Google as your Internet Service Provider is that there
will be no escaping the Big Brother of the Internet, no matter what e-mail
provider, browser, social network or search engine you use.
Apple has getting out its big guns to take aim at Taiwanese handset-maker HTC.
A lawsuit filed this week accuses HTC of infringing on 20 patents relating to
the iPhone's user interface, architecture and hardware. The US company's chief
executive, Steve Jobs, accused the company of theft and stated, "We think
competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original
technology, not steal ours."
Relations between HTC and its partners in the US such as Google and Microsoft,
which both run its software on their handsets, could be strained should the
lawsuit go Apple's way. Carriers in the US may also take a more conservative
stance with HTC products if there is a perceived risk of lawsuits. Apple is on
the other end of a similar lawsuit in which Finnish phonemaker Nokia has
accused it of infringing on its own patents. Apple has made a counter-claim of
This muscle-flexing over intellectual property is, as we know, bad news for
consumers, whose choices will inevitably diminish as a result of corporate
Nvidia is pushing the graphics processing boundaries to the limit with its new
Ion 2 platform for netbooks. The technology is expected to boost graphics
performance and battery life up to 10 times when used in conjunction with its
Optimus power management system.
The discrete Ion graphics processing unit (GPU) with dedicated memory attaches
to the Intel Atom processor already in place and delivers rich HD media in
games, movies and Internet-based video. The system will bring netbook
performance closer to conventional laptops and an array of new machines is
expected to be launched in the next few months from all the big players,
including Acer, Asus and Lenovo.
Digital entertainment companies are joining forces to crack down on piracy and
illegal downloading of their products, but their measures could punish
legitimate gamers. Ubisoft, the France-based company that has produced top
titles such as Far Cry, Assassin's Creed and the Tom Clancy
shooter series, announced that it will be removing its unpopular and intrusive
digital rights management system in favor of forcing gamers to be online while
they play. This will no doubt discourage the millions of potential consumers
out there that are not blessed with high-speed Internet connections.
Sony has taken a step further by demanding hard cash from its customers, so if
you buy a second-hand game, borrow one from a friend or even rent it, you'll
have to give Sony an additional US$20 to play it. Nintendo is approaching the
problem with brute force and scare tactics, with a recent case landing an
Australian gamer with a US$1.5 million fine for uploading Super Mario Bros for
the Wii before its launch.
Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.