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Digital trade rules

Rules governing digital trade help shape how tech companies operate around the world, with implications for human rights

New trade rules governing digital trade risk consolidating the power of the tech giants that dominate the global economy, with concerning implications for human rights.

As so much of the world’s economic activity is digitised, the world’s most valuable resource is data. The companies that collect and use that data – including Google, Meta, Apple and Amazon – are among the world’s largest and most influential corporations. These companies, and the countries in the Global North where most are headquartered, have been pushing for new digital trade rules that would further liberalise the global digital economy – opening up digital markets, limiting regulations and scrapping corporate taxes. These rules could limit the ability of states to hold tech companies accountable for their actions.

It is vital that states are able to regulate to ensure that the activities of technology companies are compatible with the realisation of human rights. The potential adverse impacts of technology companies are broad, ranging from personal data breaches, the abusive employment of ‘gig’ workers, and the use of algorithms that perpetuate discrimination.

The World Trade Organisation rules were agreed in 1995, and as such contain little on digital trade. Reform of WTO rules has been a slow process, requiring as it does the unanimous support of all members. Efforts at introducing digital trade rules have instead taken the form of free trade agreements – developed primarily by Global North countries – which increasingly include ambitious chapters covering digital trade. Additionally, liberalisation of digital trade is being discussed in a Joint Statement Initiative, a new agreement on e-commerce involving 86 WTO members. This has been called a “a disastrous new constitution for the global economy, by and for big tech”.