Trade Compliance

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Are the TPP’s Digital Trade Provisions a Game Changer for the Internet?

Posted November 19, 2015

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the first international trade agreement to include binding commitments that facilitate cross-border information flows and limit digital protectionism. It’s therefore not surprising that proponents and opponents of the deal have radically divergent views about its potential effects on the Internet.

The Obama Administration confidently asserts that “TPP will help preserve the open Internet and prevent its breakup into multiple, balkanized networks in which data flows are more expensive and more frequently blocked.” Countering that view, critics of the TPP claim that the agreement seriously undermines Internet freedom and threatens access to information by civil society.

Whether the TPP’s digital trade provisions a game changer for the Internet is a question George Washington University Professor Susan Ariel Aaronson tries to answer in a new report. “Trade agreements like TPP are not only complicated and legalistic; they are easy to demagogue and hard to understand,” she says.

Based on a thorough examination of the e-commerce, services, and transparency chapters of TPP, Aaronson argues that proponents and opponents alike are exaggerating the costs and benefits to the Internet.

As for TPP critics, Aronson acknowledges that they “make some important points that should not be ignored including its effects on freedom of expression and on cyber-security.”  Overall though, Aaronson contends that the TPP could play an important role in encouraging cross-border information flows and providing tools to challenge censorship and filtering. Moreover, she notes that the agreement “contains transparency requirements that could bring much needed sunshine, due process, and increased political participation to trade (and Internet related) policymaking in countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia.”  

However, Aaronson cautions that the TPP’s positive effects on the Internet will only be realized if: a) the agreement goes into effect and other countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, sign on; b) if policymakers use its provisions to enhance human welfare — for example, to maintain Internet openness and challenge Internet censorship and filtering as barriers to trade, and c) if other nations build on TPP’s language in their free trade agreements and/or at the WTO.

“These are all big ifs and not certitudes,” Aaronson warns, suggesting that advocates on both sides of the issue “need to take a deep breath before they laud or condemn the TPP’s effects upon the Internet.”