Digital trade protectionism does not protect workers rights and could cost us the Internet

Cross-border data flows and, as a result, the global Internet are being threatened by usual and unusual suspects. Some nation-states have proposed for some time digital sovereignty laws. But now, even governments that have been advocates for the global Internet are changing course. Think tanks and others who were in favor of the global and interoperable Internet also have turned against it. On top of all this, those opposed to digital free trade have once again risen, with the same tired arguments: cross-border data flow is bad for workers’ and people’s rights. This blog is hopefully a first step to start a conversation that reminds us of the myriad benefits of a global Internet that allows cross-border data flow. It will also provide a few counter arguments for the America’s Unions (AFL-CIO) digital trade agenda published recently. Let us be clear: ordinary workers have faced trouble in recent decades. But the AFL-CIO proposals are detrimental to the global Internet and Internet connectivity. Worse, they are not likely to protect the tech workers the AFL-CIO wants to protect.

Back in 2017, some civil society organizations, including some labor unions, allegedly spoke on behalf of “the global civil society” and argued that the prohibition of WTO on data localization as a trade barrier would disallow countries from coming up with laws to protect the public interest and protect privacy and other fundamental rights. These arguments resurfaced again recently as Biden’s administration announced a worker-centered trade policy

The recent AFL-CIO workers’ agenda starts from the mistaken premise that governments cannot regulate data or big tech companies because of digital trade policies. This, it says, leads to lack of protection for workers. Digital trade agreements do not prohibit countries from regulating data or any digital services and products. Every year, there are  myriad of laws and regulations around the world that increasingly regulate data and tech companies: consider Europe’s Digital Market Act and Digital Services Act, or India’s IT Act, for example. As UNCTAD reports, 71% of countries worldwide have come up with data protection and privacy legislation. 

The workers’ agenda is filled with assertions that trade agreements do not consider workers and people’s fundamental rights and the agenda presents data localization and more regulation as the solution. One argument is that digital apps and social media platforms have eroded privacy. However, trade agreements, unlike human rights instruments, can be effective and binding. Civil society groups have even used trade agreements and regional economic cooperation groups such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to advance privacy in cross-border data flow. 

Data localization measures tend to work for the benefit of existing, vested interests and against those who might try something new. It is not clear how such measures will make the Internet become a healthier space. 

This takes us to the other argument made in the statement that implies to care about workers’ creativity. To protect their creative rights, it asks for more aggressive copyright protection and less fair-use that supports the interest of creators. Fair use is the mechanism used by creators to assert their rights in the face of large, well sourced corporations. It is unclear how eroding fair use through digital trade agreements can help with workers’ rights and creativity. Especially as the statement itself acknowledges that by advancing intellectual property rights of big-tech corporations, the US government expanded their access to the global market at the expense of others. 

There are many more arguments in the statement that support a protectionist digital trade agenda to seemingly protect the workers and users’ rights. It even goes as far as supporting contested arguments such as online platforms should be held accountable for the third party user generated content and provision of bulk access to source codes and algorithms for the governments to address harmful practices and content is necessary. 

To protect workers and users on the Internet when dealing with digital products and services is a wonderful goal. However, it is unclear how the AFC-CIO solution can actually help with reaching that goal. Fortunately, there are both private and regulatory initiatives around the world that address the well-being of the workers in tech companies. For example, the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership, an industry consortium, includes investing in the wellness and resilience of teams dealing with sensitive materials as part of its Best Practices Framework. Tech workers have also started creating workers’ union inside tech-companies. We need to think about supporting alternatives instead of attacking the critical characteristics of the Internet. It is those characteristics that make meaningful connectivity possible.

Access to the Internet is not just access to another form of communication. It is access to essential services and a lifeline during a crisis. This was quite clear during the years of a global pandemic. We need to stand up against what hampers our interconnectivity. Our solutions should not cost us the Internet.   

Farzaneh Badii
Digital Medusa is a boutique advisory providing digital governance research and advocacy services. It is the brainchild of Farzaneh Badi[e]i.Digital Medusa’s mission is to provide objective and alternative digital governance narratives.
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