Digital Trade and U.S. Trade Policy



Rachel F. Fefer, Wayne M. Morrison, and Shayerah Ilias Akhtar | Congressional Research Service

As the global internet develops and evolves, digital trade has become more prominent on the global trade and economic policy agenda. The economic impact of the internet was estimated to be $4.2 trillion in 2016, making it the equivalent of the fifth-largest national economy. The digital economy accounted for 6.9% of current‐dollar gross U.S. domestic product (GDP) in 2017. Digital trade has been growing faster than traditional trade in goods and services.

Congress has an important role to play in shaping global digital trade policy, from oversight of agencies charged with regulating cross-border data flows to shaping and considering legislation implementing new trade rules and disciplines through trade negotiations. Congress also works with the executive branch to identify the right balance between digital trade and other policy objectives, including privacy and national security.

Digital trade includes end-products, such as downloaded movies, and products and services that rely on or facilitate digital trade, such as productivity-enhancing tools like cloud data storage and email. In 2017, U.S. exports of information and communications technology-enabled services (excluding digital goods) were an estimated $439 billion. Digital trade is growing on a global basis, contributing more to global domestic product (GDP) than financial or merchandise flows.

The increase in digital trade raises new challenges in U.S. trade policy, including how to best address new and emerging trade barriers. As with traditional trade barriers, digital trade constraints can be classified as tariff or nontariff barriers. In addition to high tariffs, barriers to digital trade may include localization requirements, cross border data flow limitations, intellectual property rights (IPR) infringement, forced technology transfer, web filtering, economic espionage, and cybercrime exposure or state-directed theft of trade secrets. China’s policies, in particular, such as those on internet sovereignty and cybersecurity, pose challenges for U.S. companies.

Digital trade issues often overlap and cut across policy areas, such as IPR and national security; this raises questions for Congress as it weighs different policy objectives. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out three potentially conflicting policy goals in the internet economy: (1) enabling the internet; (2) boosting or preserving competition within and outside the internet; and (3) protecting privacy and consumers, more generally.

While no multilateral agreement on digital trade exists in the World Trade Organization (WTO), other WTO agreements cover some aspects of digital trade. Recent bilateral and plurilateral agreements have begun to address digital trade rules and barriers more explicitly. For example, the proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and ongoing plurilateral discussions in the WTO on a potential e-commerce agreement could address digital trade barriers to varying degrees. Digital trade is also being discussed in a variety of international forums, providing the United States with multiple opportunities to engage in and shape global norms.

With workers in the high-tech sector in every U.S. state and congressional district, and over two-thirds of U.S. jobs requiring digital skills, Congress has an interest in ensuring and developing the global rules and norms of the internet economy in line with U.S. laws and norms, and in establishing a U.S. trade policy on digital trade that advances U.S. interests.


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