The New U.S. Digital Trade Agenda: Retreat



Rachael Stelly | Disruptive Competition Project (DisCo)

Last week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) confirmed that the United States was withdrawing support for key digital trade rules. The rules in question were proposed by the United States at the start of the WTO Joint Statement Initiative on E-Commerce (JSI) to ensure that exporters from participating countries receive reasonable treatment with respect to cross-border data flows, data localization, and source code protection. With the rescission, the forthcoming outcomes of the WTO negotiations are likely to be far less impactful: U.S. support is critical to finalizing any such provisions, which are foundational to digitally-enabled commerce. The announcement is an abrupt turn for not only U.S. trade policy, but brings forth the question, what else is the United States abandoning in the digital governance space? For key allies and stakeholders who have looked to U.S. leadership, the image presented is one of a ship adrift with neither a rudder nor a captain.

The United States was a first mover in advancing trade rules for the digital economy. The most recent Trade Promotion Authority legislation, reflecting a strong bipartisan consensus, states: “The principal negotiating objectives of the United States with respect to digital trade in goods and services, as well as cross-border data flows, are . . . to ensure that governments refrain from implementing trade-related measures that impede digital trade in goods and services, restrict cross-border data flows, or require local storage or processing of data[.]” 

Just four years ago at the start of the JSI talks, the United States put forth a communication detailing just how important data flows are and emphasized why it is critical that the JSI tackle the challenge of negotiating rules to facilitate data flows. The text tabled by the United States in the JSI also mirrored the data flows text in United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the text in the U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement. The United States is now bound by those rules, not only vis-a-vis Canada, Mexico, and Japan, but also vis-a-vis over a dozen Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners who enjoy Most-Favored Nation (MFN) rights from those prior agreements.

But these policies go back further and rules to enable cross-border data flows have been a part of modern U.S. trade policy. 

  1. The 2012 U.S.-Korea FTA contains an electronic commerce chapter with commitments on data flows. Article 15.8 states: “Recognizing the importance of the free flow of information in facilitating trade, and acknowledging the importance of protecting personal information, the Parties shall endeavor to refrain from imposing or maintaining unnecessary barriers to electronic information flows across borders.”  
  2. Article 15.5 of the 2004 U.S.-Chile Agreement states: Parties recognize the importance of “working to maintain cross-border flows of information as an essential element for a vibrant electronic commerce environment[.]” 
  3. Article 14.5 of the 2006 CAFTA-DR (Dominican Republic-Central America FTA) states: Parties affirm the importance of “working to maintain cross-border flows of information as an essential element in fostering a vibrant environment for electronic commerce[.]” 
  4. And, with respect to financial services, a U.S. obligation, available to all WTO members, was memorialized in the General Agreements on Trade in Services (GATS) Financial Services Understanding in 1994. Article 8 states: “No Member shall take measures that prevent transfers of information or the processing of financial information, including transfers of data by electronic means, or that, subject to importation rules consistent with international agreements, prevent transfers of equipment, where such transfers of information, processing of financial information or transfers of equipment are necessary for the conduct of the ordinary business of a financial service supplier.”

Principles underlying these rules have been prevalent throughout U.S. law and policy, but it’s also part of the Biden Administration’s agenda. 

The U.S. Commerce Department has spent decades negotiating agreements with trading partners on data transfer mechanisms. Under Secretary Raimondo, these efforts have continued and expanded. In 2022, Commerce announced the establishment of the Global Cross-Border Data Privacy Forum. The preamble of the Declaration states: “Believing that cross-border data flows increase living standards, create jobs, connect people in meaningful ways, facilitate vital research and development in support of public health, foster innovation and entrepreneurship, and allow for greater international engagement”. Commerce also successfully negotiated a new agreement with the European Union on transatlantic data transfers. Later this month, the United States will also host the APEC Leaders Summit, a venue where the United States and aligned trading partners have long championed the APEC Cross-border Privacy Rules System that facilitates data flows among member economies. 

Enhancing data flows is a part of U.S. foreign policy under the Biden Administration. The U.S.-led Declaration on the Future of the Internet commits signatories to “[p]romote our work to realize the benefits of data free flows with trust based on our shared values as like-minded, democratic, open and outward looking partners.” And just days after the United States announced its JSI decision at a meeting in Geneva, the United States then joined G7 members in a statement emphasizing importance of facilitating digital trade and data flows: 

“We recognize that unjustified data localization measures have a negative impact on crossborder data flows, by increasing data management costs for businesses, particularly Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs) and heightening cybersecurity risks. We remain committed to tackling unjustified data localization measures that lack transparency and are arbitrarily imposed, which should be distinguished from measures implemented to achieve legitimate regulatory goals.”

In short, USTR’s announcement last Wednesday should have those in the inter-agency process puzzled, in addition to sparking stakeholder concerns. It is also alarming that USTR’s move appears to be driven by domestic interests in pursuing competition-related legislation in the United States. However, the effects of rules promoting data flows on abuse of monopoly power have no obvious relevance or articulated rationale, other than to constrain the export potential of a handful of companies, while denying benefits to a much broader set of stakeholders who are arguably the more important beneficiaries. Research continues to show the benefits of data flows and access to new markets are particularly beneficial for start ups and SMEs. Further, digital trade provisions not only catalyze the exchange of digital products and goods between markets, but also serve as a multiplier effect for other sectors. The OECD has found that reducing barriers to cross-border data flows is essential to increasing non-digital services exports and goods exports from industries such as agriculture and food.

In the retreat of U.S. leadership at the international level, one is left to ask who steps in. Many were quick to point to China following the announcement, including many voices in Congress criticizing USTR’s decision. 

But this abdication of leadership involves more than just competition between the United States and China. This issue is about deciding the preferred governance model going forward for the digital economy. At a time when many countries are pursuing digital sovereignty and industrial-focused policy with respect to new technologies, the United States is sending a clear signal that it is at least amenable to these approaches–pointing to a more fragmented and unstable framework for trade likely to undermine global prosperity. 

It’s telling how others are reacting to the abrupt change to U.S. policy. India has long been critical of negotiating digital rules at the WTO. While it represents one of the fastest growing digital markets, it is also one of the most restrictive, protectionist, and closed markets for foreign exporters. Stakeholders in India have taken note of the reversal, seeing it as a “validation” of a digital isolationist approach. Ajay Srivastava, founder of Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI), opined: “The new US stand on digital trade validates India’s approach on the subject. India had long ago foreseen potential challenges with unregulated digital trade and thus refrained from participating in the WTO e-commerce negotiations.”

It remains to be seen how others in the WTO process will respond, noting that many of these countries are actively pursuing their own regional and multilateral trade agreements with similar digital trade provisions outside the JSI such as Singapore’s Digital Economic Partnership Agreement and the EU’s pursuit of new bilateral trade agreements and initiatives like the recently-concluded EU-Japan data flow agreement. While the various approaches may differ in level of ambition, ultimately countries negotiating digital rules among themselves stand to benefit their economies and their suppliers, as the United States watches from its self-imposed exile.

So where does this leave the WTO process? 

It is encouraging that progress has been made on other elements of the JSI agreement. Last week co-conveners announced consensus text on the following areas: online consumer protection; electronic signatures and authentication; unsolicited commercial electronic messages (spam); open government data; electronic contracts; transparency; paperless trading; cybersecurity; open internet access; electronic transaction frameworks; electronic invoicing; and “single windows.”  

However, the dereliction of U.S. leadership with key trading partners to pursue an ambitious agreement with key outcomes on critical components of digital trade dampens the significance and effectiveness of global rules.

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