After USTR’s Move, Global Governance of Digital Trade Is Fraught with Unknowns

Article by Patrick Leblond: “On October 25, the United States announced at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it was dropping its support for provisions meant to promote the free flow of data across borders. Also abandoned were efforts to continue negotiations on international e-commerce, to protect the source code in applications and algorithms (the so-called Joint Statement Initiative process).

According to the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR): “In order to provide enough policy space for those debates to unfold, the United States has removed its support for proposals that might prejudice or hinder those domestic policy considerations.” In other words, the domestic regulation of data, privacy, artificial intelligence, online content and the like, seems to have taken precedence over unhindered international digital trade, which the United States previously strongly defended in trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA)…

One pathway for the future sees the digital governance noodle bowl getting bigger and messier. In this scenario, international digital trade suffers. Agreements continue proliferating but remain ineffective at fostering cross-border digital trade: either they remain hortatory with attempts at cooperation on non-strategic issues, or no one pays attention to the binding provisions because business can’t keep up and governments want to retain their “policy space.” After all, why has there not yet been any dispute launched based on binding provisions in a digital trade agreement (either on its own or as part of a larger trade deal) when there has been increasing digital fragmentation?

The other pathway leads to the creation of a new international standards-setting and governance body (call it an International Digital Standards Board), like there exists for banking and finance. Countries that are members of such an international organization and effectively apply the commonly agreed standards become part of a single digital area where they can conduct cross-border digital trade without impediments. This is the only way to realize the G7’s “data free flow with trust” vision, originally proposed by Japan…(More)”.

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