Opening Spaces for Digital Rights Activism: Multilateral Trade Negotiations

Trade agreements today are the main source of rule-making at the global level, encompassing an expansive list of issues. These agreements cover a wide array of subjects that extend far beyond traditional trade matters. In the past, they have been effective tools for dominant industries to dilute or eliminate domestic policies and priorities, minimize regulatory costs, and maximize corporate interests. In most cases, trade agreements set constraints on domestic regulations, override regulatory safeguards, challenge domestic consumer protections, and weaken the leverage of local producers.

The growing significance of the internet for international trade means that attempts at trade liberalization—or, rather, new forms of trade management and regulation—of digital systems are inevitable. In recent years, global trade discussions have increasingly touched on digital issues, such as cross-border data transfers, online privacy, cybersecurity, regulation of spam, and net neutrality. Large tech companies have high stakes in these discussions, as they benefit greatly from both the elimination of what they consider to be trade barriers and also the harmonization of regulations, which reduce the cost of compliance and government mandates.

Absent fundamental changes to both the substance and process of trade negotiations, trade agreements are likely to have negative effects on the open, nondiscriminatory, and transparent internet; democratic decision making; and access to quality or accessible public services.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) can make a difference in international trade policy making. They can provide technical advice and assistance, bring new perspectives, build local capacity, and advocate with and for consumers and users. Acting alone, however, their impact is limited in scope, scale, and sustainability. CSOs need to engage in trade policy processes more effectively.

This paper, authored by Burcu Kilic and Renata Avila, and funded as part of the IPO’s Research for Impact series, analyses the role played by civil society organizations (CSOs) within discussions on the trade-related aspects of e-commerce before, during, and after the Eleventh Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It also explores the behavior of these organizations during the proceedings of the event. It identifies systemic issues that may lead WTO Members to adopt rules that are unfavorable for users and consumers, and provides recommendations as to how CSOs can counter those issues. These recommendations include: increased, targeted resources in the short and medium term to build capacity and increase the effectiveness of CSO advocacy. This paper further proposes a blueprint for constructing a positive, collaborative agenda for meeting the challenges of highly technical trade negotiations in the area of e-commerce.

To read the full report, click here.

Download PDF