As the UK leaves the EU, trade deals are top of the political agenda, but one major trade negotiation is sliding by almost unnoticed by the UK public. The ‘e-commerce’ deal currently being negotiated at the World Trade Organization (WTO) could close down our space to regulate digital companies. This has potentially huge ramifications for areas as diverse as workers’ rights, citizens’ privacy and the viability of the NHS.
Digital platforms need to be better regulated. Uber has once again lost its London licence, following safety failures including allowing a known pedophile to give rides. Major elections and the Brexit referendum have been influenced by the ‘unethical’ mining of our data from Facebook profiles. Even NHS Trusts are signing deals with Google, despite serious concerns in the United States (US) following a handover of health records with the patients’ names still on them.
Despite these issues, leaked documents show that the UK has been pushing (via the European Union) for the WTO’s e-commerce deal to be ‘as ambitious as possible’ and our government hopes to go even further through a trade deal with the US.
The WTO e-commerce negotiations are seen by some as a simple attempt to bring trade rules into the 21st century. This implies that the rules could provide much-needed regulation of digital space.
In fact the opposite is true. In trade fora, talks are obliged to centre around a single goal – liberalisation. Any rules that emerge from this WTO process will therefore be about removing- rather than increasing regulation. This principle is reflected in countries’ submissions to the negotiations, which contain provisions that could best be described as ‘anti-rules’, as they will close off many policy options which could otherwise help to protect us from the side effects of digitalisation.
Workers, citizens and the NHS should be paying attention to the WTO’s digital trade deal.
Acknowledgement to Laura Bannister, senior adviser at the Trade Justice Movement.