Free Trade on the Internet

This is from a recent speech by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

Today, the Internet represents the shipping lane of 21st Century goods and services. It is reshaping global commerce just like social media is reshaping societies. But right now the trade rules don’t neatly apply to the digital economy, despite the growing number of protectionist barriers popping up. The most recent WTO rules were written before the Internet.

It’s time for the digital economy to be within the Winners Circle by keeping data flows open and ensuring that foreign markets aren’t more legally hazardous than the U.S.

This is an important point. With regard to international trade in goods, the impact of the Internet has been significant, but only within certain limits. With the exception of goods for which electronic versions have been developed, you still need to make the goods at a factory and ship them around the world.  

With services, by contrast, the Internet revolution has been greater. A number of services that used to be difficult to trade internationally at all are now tradable with the click of a mouse. To use an example I’ve written about recently, online higher education services are taking off. Someday soon it may be just as convenient for a Washingtonian to get a degree from Melbourne University in Australia as it is to do so from Georgetown.

One problem, though, as Senator Wyden points out, is that many of our international trade rules were written in the pre-Internet era. This became apparent during the WTO dispute over online gambling. The rules could barely fit with this new industry.

Starting with the GATT in 1947, countries around the world made a good deal of progress in reducing barriers to trade in goods. There is now a great opportunity to do the same with trade in online services. Rather than getting distracted with issues such as international intellectual property protections or labor standards, it may be more productive to update trade agreements to account for digital trade, through some kind of Internet Round of trade talks.

Trade talks seem bogged down these days. In part, in my view, that is because they’ve lost focus on the core issues related to free trade. Promoting free trade in Internet services might be a good way to get things back on track.