Stop the Big Tech
“Digital Trade” Sneak Attack!

Revealing Big Tech's "Digital Trade" Ploy to Lock In Online Abuses of Workers, Consumers and Small Businesses

digital trade trojen horseBig Tech is attempting to use trade negotiations and policies to lock in binding international rules to limit governments from regulating online platforms in the public interest and from fighting corporate concentration and monopoly power. The Big Tech giants that dominate global retail, advertising, transportation, hotel and other businesses seek to evade regulation and oversight by quickly establishing international agreements that handcuff Congress and U.S. agencies now working to counter these Big Tech abuses. To obscure this, they have misbranded their attack against the very notion of government regulation of their abuses as new  “e-commerce” or “digital trade” policy initiatives. 

The agenda that Big Tech has misbranded as “digital trade” is not focused on fixing the real problems related to the online sale of imported goods. For example, today more than two million packages of online-purchased goods enter the U.S. mainly from China daily without inspection and dodging taxes thanks to what is called the de minimis or Amazon loophole.That is a real problem.

Instead, Big Tech interests are trying to undermine worker protections, policies that constrain entities’ size or market power and promote fair competition, and civil rights, privacy and liability policies being promoted by the Biden administration and many in Congress from both parties — and by other governments worldwide.

Big Tech interests are pushing this effort simultaneously on many fronts. That includes Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) negotiations, U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council talks and what is formally called the World Trade Organization (WTO) “Joint Statement Initiative on E-Commerce” (JSI-EComm) negotiations now underway in Geneva among 80-plus countries. 

At a time when the United States and the world are grappling with how to best regulate Big Tech in areas as disparate as gig economy worker protections, discrimination and algorithm transparency, competition policy and anti-trust, corporate liability, and consumer privacy, we must not establish “trade” rules that restrict or dissuade countries from regulating digital entities and breaking up monopolies or that impose or lock in retrograde domestic digital governance policies.

Harmful “digital trade” proposals include those that serve to:

No trade or other international commercial agreement should limit countries’ policies that condition permission for an entity to operate on compliance with labor, health and safety, civil rights, competition, consumer and other policies that apply across an economy or to a sector. Requiring large ride-sharing companies, for instance, to meet driver hours-of-service-rules or to contribute to social security for drivers or requiring buildings of short stay guest units booked online to meet worker and consumer safety rules, must never be characterized as a “trade barrier” nor as “censorship” if failure to comply means an end to operating permissions. Trade and commercial agreements must not be allowed to become Trojan Horse tools for attacking, weakening, preventing or dismantling labor or other public interest policies. Instead, all trade agreements should be structured to raise the floor to help ensure that all workers’ rights are protected, regardless of country.

Governments increasingly are turning to private corporations for aid with “predictive policing” and other surveillance, law enforcement and security functions. And, every-day decisions made by artificial intelligence components of online platforms increasingly affect which individuals and communities are offered access to public and private services ranging from home loans to job postings to medical treatments. International commercial agreements cannot repurpose “trade secrets” protection rules or establish other “digital trade” rules that limit the ability of regulators, academics, civil society and the public to access and review the underlying technology for discriminatory practices deserving of scrutiny, criticism and correction. Similarly, “digital trade” rules cannot establish rights and protections for online entities that allow them to evade liability for discriminatory conduct and civil rights violations.

Peoples’ every move on the internet and via cell phones is increasingly tracked, stored, bought and sold — as are interactions with the growing “internet of things,” that many people may not even be aware are tracking them nor from which they have a feasible way to opt out. Trade pacts must not restrict governments from acting on the public’s behalf in establishing rules regarding under what conditions individuals’ personal data may be collected, where it can be processed or transmitted, and how or where it is stored.

How to address the ways in which certain online business practices, algorithms and moderation stoke racial and ethnic violence and contribute to other anti-social behavior is a hotly debated topic. While there is no consensus on policy solutions, what is absolutely true is that this rapidly evolving area of public policy must not be restrained via trade agreements. Using trade pacts to prevent signatory countries from determining the best ways to protect the public interest online is unacceptable.

As corporations and conglomerates exert increasing control over important social functions, governments must be able to combat anti-competitive business practices, place limits on corporate mergers and break up monopolies where warranted. Digital trade rules must not include terms that forbid countries from establishing or maintaining policies that limit the size or range of services offered by companies, limit the legal structures under which they may be required to operate, nor otherwise restrict the regulation or break-up of Big Tech monopolies.

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