US trade rep seeks no tariffs on Internet products

The United States is working to convince European countries to lower tariffs on Internet-related technology.

After squeaking through trade agreements with Japan on semiconductors and with China on intellectual property, the United States is now working to convince European countries to lower tariffs on Internet-related technology, Acting US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky says.

For the US computer industry, "it would be great if there were no tariffs on products related to the information superhighway," she says. The products would include cellular telephones, computer equipment, semiconductors and telephone switching equipment, she says.

Representatives from the US government and computer industry have approached many countries about the initiative, including Japan, Canada, the Philippines and Malaysia.

"Europe, at the government level, is walking backward a little bit," Barshefsky says. "We're working to persuade Europe to join us ... Our goal is zero percent tariffs on these products."

In the past six months, however, the dominant trade issues have been software piracy in China over which the US has twice threatened retaliation, and market barriers in Japan that delayed a semiconductor agreement.

Barshefsky praises efforts by Chinese officials to comply with the accord. "There have been recent reports that many CD presses have been confiscated by Chinese and Hong Kong customs agents," she says. "The problem in Russia is almost as serious as China," she says.

However, enforcement within the government ministries themselves must still be addressed. Last month, Barshefsky's office led a delegation of representatives from a group of software companies to China to try to come up with a way to help government agencies stop using illegally copied software. "The China software mission discussions were valuable," she says. "But these things take time. We have to see how things percolate."

Amnesty programmes, which have worked with some success in Mexico and Italy, are being considered for government agencies in China and Japan, according to Barshefsky. There also is rampant software piracy by companies in Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia, she says. "We're seeing software buyers replicating software throughout their companies."

Another intellectual property protection issue her office is dealing with is decompilation, or reverse-engineering, which allows companies in certain countries to bypass copyright laws by arguing that they are not copying the software product, but merely copying the underlying code itself.

Although Japan backed off a plan to allow firms to reverse-engineer without holding them liable for copyright violation, Korea, Thailand and Australia are attempting to allow that, according to Barshefsky.

Meanwhile, she says it is too early to discuss the status of the latest semiconductor accord with Japan, except to say the Clinton administration is adamant about enforcing its provisions. "This agreement will be enforced," she says. "If we see substantial diminutions of market access, then we'll take action."

The US has 23 trade-related agreements with Japan, 15 of them related to intellectual property protection, according to Barshefsky.

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