New Avenues to Govern Cross-Border Information Flows

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The Elliott School of International Affairs hosted a very interesting conversation today on “New Avenues to Govern Cross-Border Information Flows.”  SIIA co-sponsored the event together the Internet Society of Greater Washington, D.C.  The Institute for International Economic Policy (IIEP) presented the event.  Research Professor and Cross-Disciplinary Fellow Susan Aaronson moderated.

I provided an industry perspective, and my talk is available here.  My written remarks focus on what we hope to achieve with respect to cross-border data flows in the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), the WTO’s E-commerce Work Committee, the G20, G7, and the OECD.   However, as fellow panelist USTR Director for Digital Trade Sam DuPont concentrated on these fora, I emphasized in my spoken remarks four aspects of the cross-border data flow discussion.  First, key industry “asks” such as obligations to permit data flows, avoidance of server localization requirements, and exceptions that do not effectively allow countries to unjustifiably discriminate against foreign firms. Second, an explanation of why data flows are so important to SIIA members.  Third, a description of some of the studies SIIA has supported that show the importance of cross-border data flows.  Fourth, some of the work showing that developing, as well as developed, countries have a vital stake in cross-border data flows.  SIIA will be releasing a resource paper on this topic shortly.

In response to a question from the audience, I noted that SIIA, together with many other national and international trade associations had signed a letter to the Chinese government criticizing the impending passage of the cybersecurity law there.  In fact, Chinese behavior in the cybersecurity area is a textbook example of why the United States must work with other likeminded countries on cross-border data flows.  If this does not happen, there is a substantial risk that the Chinese example will become a model for other countries.  

The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Director of International Programs, Deborah James, provided a civil society perspective on the cross-border data flow discussion in the TISA and WTO E-Commerce Work Committee contexts.  Her view is that the proposed exceptions language in TISA does not provide sufficient flexibility for national privacy regimes.  Within the WTO, she believes that developing country requests for things like broader Internet access should be addressed more urgently than cross-border data flows.  James also expressed strong support for greater transparency and more non-industry participation in trade agreement negotiations.  Our view is that cross-border information flows should be the international norm and that an attempt to distinguish data localization requirements on censorship grounds vice privacy is practically impossible.  We are open to greater non-industry participation in negotiations, and we believe it is also important for all stakeholders to evaluate outcomes based on objectives everybody has agreed to in advance.

The World Bank’s Lead Economist for the International Trade Department, Michael Ferrantino, gave an interesting talk on the work that the World Bank is conducting in the cross-border data flow space.  Indeed the Bank has done some pathbreaking work in the Digital Dividends report.     

So, in sum, a very interesting conversation.  From an SIIA perspective, the important thing is that even if work on trade agreements is halted for several years, cross-border data flows should become the norm for both economic and freedom of information reasons.

Carl Carl Schonander is Senior Vice President for Global Public Policy.