Rigging the rules: How Big Tech uses stealth “trade” agreements and how we can stop them
Third World ECONOMICS No. 765, 16-28 February 2023
Rigging the rules: How Big Tech uses stealth “trade” agreements and how we can stop them
by Deborah James
Efforts to curb the ruinous business practices of the Big Tech corporations are at risk of being impeded by “digital trade” rules negotiated in international trade pacts. It is time to overturn this anti-regulatory agenda in favour of a governance model that prioritizes digital industrialization and data as a public good.
It is well known that Big Tech firms are now the largest
corporations in the history of the world. The underreported
backstory of how they got this way is that the most profitable
sector of the global economy has been able to maintain a state of
self-regulation, that is to say, they are massively under-regulated,
in a way that no other sector of the economy is privileged. In
addition, their market capitalization has metastasized because
investors know that these firms are massive collectors, purchasers
and hoarders of data, arguably the most valuable resource in
But how is it that the largest sector of the economy remains
the most unregulated? There can only be one answer: these firms
have invested their surplus profits into shaping the rules of the
economy to their benefit, both domestically within the United
States and internationally, by exercising their political power
through massive lobbying efforts. They have, unfortunately, been
aided by the false narrative of techno-romanticism favoured by
most sides of the political spectrum, at least until recently.
It is high time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Big
Tech is just a group of amazingly profitable companies. All
industries operating in the economy do so under rules set by
policymakers in the state, country or region in which they operate.
Unfortunately, the majority of policies that apply to Big Tech’s
operation are actually geared towards “restricting regulation”
rather than governing the activities of these companies in the
Fortunately, policymakers in the US and around the world are
waking up to the inarguable reality that Big Tech self-regulation
has been a colossal catastrophe for: privacy, democracies, the
quality of public debate, misinformation during the pandemic,
civil rights and fairness under algorithms, labour rights, fair
taxation, and for a myriad of other issues.
That is why policymakers, regulators and prosecutors are
undertaking new efforts to properly regulate Big Tech in the
public interest, as well as to enforce existing legislation in areas
where it does exist. New legislation and regulation are emerging
in multiple arenas, including, but not limited to, competition
algorithmic accountability and labour policy.
However, these new efforts are at risk. After successfully
securing and maintaining a state of self-regulation in the US,
where most of these corporations are domiciled, the last six
years have seen Big Tech embark on a campaign to lock in this
deregulation globally. Their method of choice for achieving this
global deregulation is through so-called “trade” agreements.
Big Tech has been engaged in a massive lobbying effort to lock
in deregulation through “trade” rules in the multilateral World
Trade Organization (WTO), but also in bilateral and regional
agreements around the world.
If civil society, legislators and regulators, and the public at
large, wish to “rein in Big Tech”, it will be absolutely necessary to
preserve that policy space to regulate by forestalling its stealth
efforts to lock in deregulation. This can only be achieved by
preventing the spread of dangerous “digital trade” agreements.
This essay maps how Big Tech brought us into this
predicament and describes how these corporations consolidated
their deregulatory power during the pandemic. It also shows
how the public debate has changed, and the steps that legislators
and regulators are taking in major policy arenas of competition
policy, algorithmic accountability, legal liability of platforms, and
cybersecurity. It then points to two concepts that should drive
our thinking about digitalization and data governance: data in
the public good, and digital industrialization. It concludes by
pointing to some arenas for action necessary to overcome this
Big Tech’s wishlist to rig the global economy
In 2015, the Barack Obama administration hired the chief
executive officer of the Business Software Alliance, a major
Big Tech lobby firm, to literally write US government policy
on the emerging issues of digital trade. This became the US
“e-commerce” proposal in the WTO in 2016.
While these provisions may not benefit the micro, small
and medium enterprise (MSME) competitors of Big Tech
in non-US countries, the foreign branches of US-based Big
Tech corporations (Google Europe, Amazon Japan, Facebook
Australia) dominate the lobby associations worldwide and thus
set the agenda globally. Thus, at the behest of the European
Services Forum (ESF) and other similar lobby groups, the
European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia, Singapore and other
developed countries followed suit. These countries, along with
some developing countries, pushed to launch a new round of
negotiations on the new topic of “e-commerce” at the WTO in
December 2017. But they were unsuccessful, as India and some
African and Latin American governments realized that doing so
would jeopardize their digital industrialization policy space in
As a result, a group of WTO members have been negotiating
a “plurilateral” (meaning only by certain members) agreement at
the WTO, which is likely illegal, given that the WTO’s founding
documents proscribe negotiations by some members without
a mandate by multilateral consensus. Proponents are aiming
for a new agreement among as many members as possible,
dramatically bypassing the efforts of developing countries to have
their concerns regarding digital industrialization addressed. At
the same time, proponents have pursued digital trade provisions
in bilateral (among two countries) or regional (among several
countries in a region) trade agreements.
In fact, in every “trade” agreement currently being negotiated
or recently undertaken by the US, the EU, Canada, Japan or
the United Kingdom, as well as in certain agreements without
these countries, there are so-called “digital trade” (sometimes
euphemistically called “e-commerce”) provisions that originated
with the proposals of Big Tech in the US several years ago.
Major regional agreements with comprehensive digital
trade provisions include the Regional Comprehensive Economic
Partnership (RCEP) in Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Agreement (TPPA) in Asia-Pacific, and the EU-Mercosur
Agreement between the EU and several South American
Some clauses on e-commerce have been included in “freetrade agreements” with the US for many years, but the more
dangerous, newer-generation provisions discussed here are
found primarily in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
(USMCA) and the US-Japan Digital Trade Agreement.
The EU has already signed six agreements that include
clauses on digital trade, with Canada, Singapore, Vietnam,
Mercosur, Japan and Mexico. It is currently negotiating another
seven agreements that include digital-related clauses with
Tunisia, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the region
of Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA), and at the international
level in the WTO.
“Trade” agreements are the most corporate-driven,
undemocratic policymaking processes globally and regionally,
as well as in many countries domestically. “Trade” negotiators
often operate under a mandate to work in concert with the
business sector to increase trade, without much input from other
sectors such as health, education or the environment, or from
communities such as workers, consumers or residents, who are
all likely to be affected by the resulting agreements. “Trade” is
used here in quotes because most policies under the umbrella
of “trade” agreements touch on multiple areas of human life far
beyond what would be popularly considered part of trade, such
as import or export tariffs and quotas.
Proponents often pitch their proposals based on flawed
economic studies which purport to show economic gains from
“trade”, without acknowledging their distributional impacts – that
is, how those “gains” often represent a decrease in compensation
for workers and are directed towards capital owners – and
without taking into account their impact on the environment,
public health, community cohesion and other societal impacts.
While their business models differ, Big Tech firms have
risen to the heights of wealth and power through a similar set
of business practices. These include amassing monopoly powers,
including by buying up smaller competitors to absorb their data
or shut them down; avoiding liability for the harms caused by
their business models; collecting, purchasing, processing and
storing data in ways that violate rights to privacy; avoiding and
evading taxes; failing to invest in appropriate mechanisms to
preserve cybersecurity; using algorithms that target consumers
based on discriminatory factors such as race, gender, income
and other protected status; extending protections of intellectual
property monopolies; and outsourcing much of their operations
and relying on “contractors”, who are stripped of their rights, for
much of their labour.
So, what is included in these “trade” agreements?
Proponents couch the provisions in technical language such as
“non-discrimination”, “technological neutrality”, “free flow of
information” and other positive-sounding phrases. In reality,
the provisions can be best understood as a method to limit the
policy space to legislate around each of their business practices
mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
There are, for example, at least seven provisions that would
either ban taxation of trade outright and/or make it more difficult
for countries to tax Big Tech corporate profits. This is in spite
of the fact that Big Tech corporations are notorious tax dodgers
and the appropriate taxation of Big Tech’s outsized profits is
essential for quality public services and responding to crises like
a pandemic or climate change.
The main priority especially for US-based Big Tech firms is
to gain rights to control the cross-border transfer of data without
privacy restrictions or localization requirements. This is the most
dangerous provision, as it would allow Big Tech corporations to
accelerate their market monopolization and manipulation even
further through the control of massive troves of data. It would also
dramatically constrain workers’ and legislators’ ability to create
policies for data in the public good or digital industrialization
strategies, described below.
But the firms also want to handcuff regulators’ and legislators’
ability to ensure that technology functions in the public interest
without causing further damage to society through their abovedescribed harmful business practices. These and other provisions
are discussed in greater detail below.
Big Tech expands its market control and power during the pandemic
Given the current state of self-regulation, Big Tech has been
able to utilize the pandemic to greatly expand and consolidate
its profits and market share. Apple, Alphabet (Google), Meta
(Facebook), Amazon and Microsoft are among the seven largest
corporations in the world based on market capitalization,
according to Forbes Global ranking as of May 2022. These five
firms alone have a combined market capitalization of more than
The negative impacts of Big Tech’s business practices have
emerged as a major topic in public debates in recent years. While
the revenues of all major Big Tech firms have soared during the
pandemic, exposés on topics ranging from data monopolization
to privacy abrogation to cybersecurity leaks to worker
exploitation to tax avoidance to algorithmic discrimination to
profiting from misinformation regularly appear in most major
media. Big Tech is well aware of its plummeting popularity in
the public square.
Little wonder, then, that these firms have ramped up their
investments in lobbying and narrative-shaping. Unfortunately,
due to the excessive rents they are able to extract from the
economy as a result of lackadaisical regulation and tax
enforcement, they have surplus profits worth billions to invest in
policy manipulation, particularly when it comes to high-stakes,
permanent, enforceable policies that can be garnered through
undemocratic processes such as trade agreements.
Public interest group Public Citizen tracks Big Tech’s
lobbying prowess in the US. In its report “Big Tech, Big Cash:
Washington’s New Power Players”, the group documented that:
- “Facebook and Amazon are now the two biggest corporate
lobbying spenders in the country.
- Big Tech has eclipsed yesterday’s big lobbying spenders,
Big Oil and Big Tobacco. In 2020, Amazon and Facebook
spent nearly twice as much as Exxon and Philip Morris on
- During the 2020 election cycle, Big Tech spent USD 124
million in lobbying and campaign contributions – breaking
its own records from past election cycles.
- Amazon and Facebook drove most of this growth. From the
years 2018-2020, Amazon increased spending by 30% while
Facebook added an astounding 56% to its Washington
- Big Tech’s lobbyists are not just numerous, they are also
among the most influential in Washington.
- Among the 10 lobbyists who were the biggest contributors
to the 2020 election cycle, half lobby on behalf of at least one
of the four Big Tech companies.”
Moreover, because these companies are so profitable,
members of the US Congress own their stock. “18 senators and
77 House members report owning shares of one or more of the
companies,” the report by Public Citizen stated.
The situation is no less dire in Europe. In a recent report
“The Lobby Network: Big Tech’s Web of Influence in the EU”,
research and campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory
(CEO) revealed that:
- “612 companies, groups, and business associations lobby on
the EU’s digital economy policies. Together, they spend over
€97 million annually, lobbying the EU institutions. This
makes tech the biggest lobby sector in the EU by spending,
ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals.”
- This universe is dominated by a handful of firms. Just 10
companies are responsible for almost a third of the total tech
lobby spend. Google, Facebook and Microsoft are by far the
largest spenders, and along with Apple, Huawei, Amazon,
IBM, Qualcomm, Intel and Vodafone, spend more than €32
million making their voices heard in the EU.
- Digital industry companies are not just lobbying individually.
They are also collectively organized into business and trade
associations which are themselves important lobby actors.
The business associations lobbying on behalf of Big Tech
alone have a lobbying budget that far surpasses that of the
bottom 75% of the companies in the digital industry.
- Similar intensification of lobbying spending is likely
occurring in Japan, Canada, the UK and around the world.
If this is happening in developed countries, how extensive is
Big Tech’s influence over developing-country governments?
In addition to being directly lobbied by Big Tech, developing
countries also suffer from pro-corporate power leveraged by socalled “aid” agencies. Rich-country governments, such as the UK
and Germany, deploy aid agencies including the Department
for International Development (DFID) and the Society for
International Cooperation (GIZ), respectively, not to promote
development, but instead to fund programmes to “help”
developing countries implement pro-Big Tech policies as well as
to participate in anti-development “digital trade” negotiations.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID)
programme is even more brazen as it facilitates the Big Tech
corporations themselves to deliver messages to developingcountry governments about what their technology policies
should be. To be sure, these firms are not development experts,
and do not have a mandate to help create small business
competitors in developing countries; it is something that they
would not do. Rather, they are being supported by USAID’s
development-washing to deliver their market access wishes for
how developing-country governments should change their own
rules, but in a way which would actually benefit Big Tech based
in the US.
There is no other way to describe these efforts than
colonialism in a modern form.
Political institutions respond: new legislation and new
Due to the seismic shift in public understanding of the
negative impacts of Big Tech on democracy, privacy, the quality of
public debate, fairness in areas of our lives touched by algorithms
and other technology-related issues, many countries are in the
process of formulating legislation which would challenge the
current “Wild West” in which the largest corporations in the
history of the world remain unregulated.
The EU has recently approved both the Digital Markets
Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), and the Data
Governance Act (GDA), and is debating the Artificial Intelligence
Act, which are positive, although inadequate, steps to rein in
Big Tech, especially with regard to competition policy, market
manipulation and monopolization.
Similar legislation is also underway in the US. Because the
original Big Tech proposals originated in the US, and because the
legislative shift there is less well known than in Europe, the US
legislation will serve as an example in this essay. Here legislation
on only four areas will be considered, namely, competition
policy, algorithmic accountability, legal liability of platforms,
Competition policy: Several important bills have been put
forth in the US Congress to address the increasingly monopolistic
practices of Big Tech and promote fair competition. The Ending
Platform Monopolies Act would regulate conflicts of interest
when a company operates a platform but also uses it to sell its
products. The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by
Enabling Service Switching Act would mandate rules to facilitate
the portability of user data. The American Innovation and Choice
Online Act would prevent Big Tech from discriminating against
other participants in their services. The Platform Competition
and Opportunity Act would make it more difficult to carry
out certain acquisitions. The Merger Filing Fee Modernization
Act would require tech companies to pay more to government
agencies to review increasingly complex acquisitions.
Likewise, on the regulatory side, US President Joe Biden
appointed major anti-tech crusaders to key regulatory posts
in the government. These include Jonathan Kanter to lead the
Justice Department’s antitrust division, Lina Khan to chair the
Federal Trade Commission, and Tim Wu as the special assistant
to the president for technology and competition policy. All three
have since been active in using the executive branch to push
back against the anti-competitive monopolistic practices of Big
Tech, for the first time in decades.
Unfortunately, it seems that some of these pro-competition
new rules would be incompatible with the market access
provisions in the e-commerce negotiations, which are intended
to constrain states from regulating which products and services
companies can offer, leaving that up to the companies themselves
Big Tech would also like to prevent regulators from mandating
that companies ensure consumers’ rights to choose, for example,
which apps can be used on their phones. It has fought hard
against mandated “interoperability” provisions in the above laws.
The provision in the “trade” rules reads: “No party/member shall
prevent public telecommunications networks or their services
suppliers, including value-added services, from choosing the
supporting technologies of their networks and services, and/or
electronic commerce-related network equipment and products
related to the technologies.” So through the trade provisions,
Big Tech aims to handcuff regulatory powers from being able to
mandate this key consumer choice issue.
Algorithmic discrimination: One of the key demands of
Big Tech in the negotiations is the requirement that governments
be barred from requiring companies to disclose source code or
algorithms. Big Tech wants to be able to hold these exclusively
as its intellectual property. The provision, Section C.3.(1), reads,
“No Member shall require the transfer of, or access to, source
code of software owned by a person of another Member, [or the
transfer of, or access to, an algorithm expressed in that source
code,] as a condition for the import, distribution, sale, or use
of that software, or of products containing that software, in its
In the initial agreements that included digital trade
provisions, there were no exceptions for disclosure. When the
Volkswagen scandal emerged, investigators were able to learn
that the company was cheating on emissions pollution only
because they were able to read the algorithm or source code of
the emissions software. New e-commerce deals since then have
made increasing exceptions for disclosures, including for judicial
proceedings or regulatory reviews.
Access to algorithms is essential not only for legislators and
regulators but also for the public. Algorithms now control who
sees a job advertisement, and who is hired, promoted or fired.
Without access to the source code, labour activists and trade
unions would not be able to ascertain if a worker’s rights had
been violated. Likewise, judicial systems are increasingly turning
to algorithms to decide the length of sentencing after conviction.
In the latter case, however, if data based on the outcomes of a
racist judicial system are fed into an algorithm, the outcome
can be just as or more discriminatory than the decision of an
In 2022, both chambers of the US Congress introduced
an Algorithmic Accountability Act. This Act would include
many important reforms, but it is difficult to see how a law
that would create transparency and accountability on source
codes and algorithms could be compatible with Big Tech’s wish,
embodied in the e-commerce negotiations, to bar governments
from requiring disclosure of those same source codes and
Protection from liability: A key, misunderstood provision
in digital trade agreements would limit the liability of platforms
for harms caused by third parties’ use of the platforms. This
provision is based on Section 230 of the US communications law.
Simply put, this provision means that if people use Facebook to
incite racial violence against immigrants or other marginalized
people, and some other people kill people as a result, Facebook
cannot be held liable. This is even as Facebook’s algorithm
encourages circulation of these incendiary posts because more
clicks drive up advertising revenue. So, Facebook directly profits
from exacerbating racial, ethnic and other conflicts while bearing
no responsibility for these actions.
Although this digital trade provision is based on US law,
Section 230 is very controversial in the country. A group of
House members have introduced the Justice Against Malicious
Algorithms Act, which seeks to amend Section 230 to remove
absolute immunity in certain instances. “Social media
platforms like Facebook continue to actively amplify content
that endangers our families, promotes conspiracy theories,
and incites extremism to generate more clicks and ad dollars.
These platforms are not passive bystanders – they are knowingly
choosing profits over people, and our country is paying the price,”
said Representative Frank Pallone in a statement introducing
the legislation. “The time for self-regulation is over, and this bill
holds them accountable. Designing personalized algorithms that
promote extremism, disinformation, and harmful content is a
conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it,”
In the US, there are divergent opinions on what reforms are
needed. But it is easy to see that any decision in this regard should be
arrived at through open, democratic debate. At stake are domestic
issues of democracy, free speech, privacy and control over our
lives, which should not be dictated by the dreams of Big Tech from
decades ago before the realities of these scandals had emerged.
Nevertheless, US “digital trade” policies and proposals under
negotiation still include the wholesale export of Section 230 to
be codified into binding international treaties.
Cybersecurity: Big Tech also wants to be able to decide its
own methods of ensuring cybersecurity, forgoing what would
likely be tougher legislation on the matter, given the massive
number of leaks of sensitive financial and other data over the last
decade. Big Tech’s proposals on “e-signatures” (Section A.1.(2)4)
state that “No Member shall adopt or maintain measures
that would prohibit parties to an electronic transaction from
mutually determining the appropriate electronic authentication
methods, or electronic signature for that transaction.” But
“mutually determining” the electronic authentication method or
electronic signature in a transaction between a consumer and
fintech means that it is fintech that decides. The proposals put
forth by Big Tech seek to extend this status quo as they prevent
states (members) from mandating higher security methods for
But history is full of examples of states failing to regulate
security in financial transactions and paying the price. To cite
just one example, after the Department of Homeland Security
(DHS) reported cyber intrusions among US natural gas pipeline
operators as far back as 2012, the White House, Congressional
representatives and (both Democratic and Republican) regulators
expressed concern about these cybersecurity risks and proposed
mandatory regulations to address them. However, no regulations
were implemented. Then in 2021, the largest US fuel pipeline was
hacked because of a failure to set up multi-factor authentication,
forcing it to shut down for the first time in its 57-year history.
This led to shortages across the US East Coast and higher fuel
prices, as well as the payment of a $4.4 million ransom.
Subsequently, new cybersecurity rules were adopted by the
US Federal Trade Commission in December 2021 requiring
companies to implement multi-factor authentication along
with other requirements. This is another example of a federal
regulatory measure in contradiction to the stated e-commerce
rule of giving the company the power to self-regulate.
These are only a small sample of the legislation, regulations
and enforcements being considered to rein in the power of Big
Tech in the US, the home of tech giants. All of them seem to
be in direct contradiction to the six-year-old proposals first put
forward by Big Tech, which are being discussed currently in the
WTO and in bilateral and regional agreements.
And this is just the beginning. Similar efforts are underway
across the developed and developing world, and there will be
many more legislative, regulatory and judicial efforts to come.
Public sentiment, and regulatory and enforcement approaches,
are light years away from where they were six years ago when antiregulatory proposals were introduced as “trade” agreements.
New vision for digital governance
Given the harms we witness on a regular basis by Big Tech,
and the new efforts underway to rein in the power of these
corporations, there is a clear and urgent need to re-envision
their role in society.
The expanding role of technology should benefit society
by fostering economic prosperity and equity; solving common
problems like climate change; and expanding quality accessible
public services such as healthcare and education. The achievement
of these goals calls for an overhaul of digital governance, which
in turn should be guided by two fundamental underpinnings.
The first is “data as a public good”. To date, much of the
research and writing on data as a public good relates to making
public (state- or government-collected) data available to the
general public, including for use for private profit. However, we
must also think of the reverse. Given that the largest repository
of data about how people move about in cities is collected from
individuals by Uber, it is only sensible that, as a condition of
being able to use public roads and public infrastructure for
private profit, Uber should also be mandated to share its data with
the public (in a depersonalized way which protects privacy, of
course). This data could be used for public oversight, as the New
York Taxicab Commission did when it evaluated Uber’s data and
found that the company was violating minimum wage laws and
minimum hourly pay laws, and legislated improvements. The
Taxicab Commission also found that the company was violating
access for people with disabilities, and mandated public interest
improvements in accessibility. This is only one of the myriad
examples that can be found in the public debate on “data as a
The second underpinning is the use of data for digital
industrialization. In the above example, the Taxicab Commission
also required Uber to disclose the metadata publicly so that other
entrepreneurs could use it to further innovation. Given that data
is the most valuable resource in human history, it is essential
that governments enact digital industrialization policies that
enable workers and entrepreneurs to use digitalization to create
jobs and set up small businesses that generate value in society,
away from the current trend of escalating data monopolization
by ever-fewer firms.
Digital industrialization involves harnessing digital
technologies to generate economic benefits, including jobs and
small businesses, and increasing the scale of local tech industries.
This includes expanding the transformation of large datasets into
usable intelligence that can maximize digitalization’s value; and
greater use of digital services through improved information
and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures,
from telecommunications to cloud computing to advanced
applications like robotics.
All of these practices depend on access to data. While
much of early technological innovation was publicly funded,
corporations have privatized profits through the states’ granting
of patent and copyright concessions, and their own claim to
privatization of data. Digital trade rules would expand these
unwarranted protections. Instead, regulators should seek to
enable the public to benefit from the creation of large datasets,
so that innovation hubs and start-ups can use them to create jobs
and solve community problems.
Clearly, the Big Tech agenda for data – in which private
corporations collect it without restrictions, use it as they please,
abuse our privacy and privatize the profits – is no longer
viable. There are too many other aspects of data to allow it to
be “governed” by agreements whose primary aim is to forestall
That’s why the major United Nations agency that promotes
e-commerce for development, the UN Conference on Trade and
Development (UNCTAD), in 2021 issued a major call for a new
model of data governance that must be based not in a trade body
but in a multidimensional multilateral body such as the United
Nations. In the Overview of UNCTAD’s Digital Economy Report
2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlights that:
“Data are multidimensional, and their use has implications
not just for trade and economic development but also for human
rights, peace and security. Responses are also needed to mitigate
the risk of abuse and misuse of data by States, non-State actors or
the private sector … The Report calls for innovative approaches
to governing data and data flows to ensure more equitable
distribution of the gains from data flows while addressing risks
and concerns. A holistic global policy approach has to reflect
the multiple and interlinked dimensions of data and balance
different interests and needs in a way that supports inclusive and
sustainable development with the full involvement of countries
trailing behind in digital readiness.”
While much of the writing on digital industrialization to
date focuses on the needs of developing countries, the concept is
just as urgent for workers in the US, the EU and other developed
countries around the world. Workers everywhere must ensure
that control of data and its use are not monopolized by the
largest Big Tech firms, but that data is available for job creation,
innovation and the common good.
Workers globally have been losing their share of the gains
of productivity for decades, in large part because powerful
corporations have rigged the rules through trade agreements.
Achieving control of data and its regulation is a current corporate
priority in locking in a system of global control over economic
resources. To change that tide, workers must have a say in the
rules that govern technological advancement.
Some would argue that trade unions, consumers, privacy
and development advocates, legislators and other communities
should thus suggest what they would like to see in a digital trade
agreement. But this argument misses the point entirely. In order
to enact the anti-monopoly, cybersecurity, tax fairness, antidiscrimination, pro-worker and pro-innovation legislation the
world really needs, and to keep that policy space open for future
unknown eventualities, we need to prevent all of these arenas
being walled off from national legislation by a pro-corporate
That is one reason it was so shocking that, while claiming
that their negotiating positions emphasize benefits for workers
and sustainability respectively, the US and the EU fought
diligently to achieve Big Tech’s main goal for the WTO Ministerial
Conference in June 2022: extending the moratorium on customs
duties on electronic transmissions. As major purveyors of digital
music, movies and books, Apple, Netflix and Amazon will keep
their tax-free status – benefitting them, not workers or MSMEs.
Urgent agenda for action
People’s movements have made great strides in understanding
the negative impacts of the pernicious practices of Big Tech on
people’s daily lives. Journalists exposing Facebook’s role in election
manipulation in Latin America and Europe, movements revealing
and calling for an end to algorithmic discrimination in policing
and sentencing, communities denouncing misinformation on
social media with regard to the lifesaving efficacy of COVID19 vaccines, new research on the negative impact of monopolies
on economic prosperity, the list goes on. Civil society activists
have also built incredible coalitions and movements to put an
end to these negative impacts, such as the burgeoning labour
movement organizing Amazon workers, efforts to secure data
privacy legislation around the world, and global efforts to gain
tax justice vis-à-vis Big Tech.
Unfortunately, civil society is only starting to fully grasp the
importance of “trade” policy as a key field of contest over the
future of Big Tech. In the next year, competition policy experts
could convene a thorough assessment and redirection of “trade”
policy mandates based on emerging anti-monopoly measures.
Cybersecurity experts should ensure that “trade” agreements
do not undermine their technical and policy achievements.
Tax justice advocates could investigate further the potential
for “trade” agreements to undermine their hard-won gains and
oppose these agreements accordingly. Anti-racist and other
civil rights activists could incorporate mandatory source code
disclosure as a key demand in algorithmic accountability and
ensure that “trade” policy does not constrain that goal.
Workers’ unions rightly emphasize the power of collective
bargaining rights, but often do not make the connection to
trade policy that determines the field where those rights can
be asserted. Workers and governments everywhere should
champion digital industrialization, instead of seeing this as the
domain of developing countries. Workers everywhere should
not allow the wholesale takeover of the most valuable resource
by Big Tech as if they are only affected by civil rights concerns
and not economic monopoly power.
Some privacy advocates have strongly pushed for the
inclusion of the issue of privacy protections in trade agreements.
But others falsely imagine that “trade” agreements could prevent
governments from restricting access to Internet services.
This is ludicrous as it is beyond their possibility and all past
Legislators and regulators working on the above issues to
rein in Big Tech should weigh in with their counterparts in trade
policymaking, to ensure that their legislative and regulatory
jurisdiction is not handcuffed by Big Tech through a “trade”
agreement. Funding partners and donors need to drastically
scale up investments to counter Big Tech’s deep pockets, going
beyond civil rights and access to include support for preserving
economic policy space through trade campaigning.
Collectively, we must build movements to generate not
only the funding and advocacy to stop the damage of the
existing privatization-digitalization model, but also to accelerate
investment in digital industrialization and data as a public
Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS), a global network
of civil society organizations, was instrumental in stopping the
launch of multilateral negotiations in the WTO in 2017, and
looks forward to working with individuals, movements and
organizations in all countries against corporate-driven “digital
Deborah James is the Director of International Programs at the
Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC,
where she facilitates the global civil society network, Our World Is
Not for Sale (OWINFS), on the World Trade Organization (WTO).
She regularly advises civil society, trade unions and governments
around the world on the WTO and especially the proposed new
rules on digital trade, such as in her publication Digital Trade
Rules: A disastrous new constitution for the global economy
written by and for Big Tech.