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.