All this week, EFF is at the 12th annual meeting of the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Geneva. Last year we co-organized the first ever main session of the IGF on trade and the Internet, recognizing how trade negotiations are incorporating an increasing number of Internet-related issues, many of which—such as copyright, domain name dispute resolution, and spam control—are already being dealt with in more transparent and inclusive fora.

One of the key outcomes of that main session was the formation of a new IGF Dynamic Coalition on Trade and the Internet. This self-organized working group, currently led by EFF, carries on its work throughout the year, and reports back to the IGF annually. Although the Dynamic Coalition is new and its outputs do not have a formal status, its influence is already growing. For example, last month, the Dynamic Coalition was name-checked in the European Parliament’s new report on its digital trade policy.

A further milestone for the Dynamic Coalition took place today at its inaugural face-to-face meeting, where a resolution on transparency, that had been drafted online by the group’s members during the year, was endorsed by participants at the meeting by rough consensus. The resolution includes the following recommendations:

  • Countries should publish their own textual proposals on rules in ongoing international trade negotiations at the same time as these proposals are presented to their negotiating partners.
  • Countries engaged in trade negotiations should agree to publish consolidated texts after each round of ongoing negotiations.
  • Trade ministries should act transparently by publishing records of their meetings with stakeholders, and should be overseen by an independent transparency officer, subject to statutory confidentiality and non-disclosure standards.
  • Domestic consultations on textual proposals should be opened up to the public through on-the-record notice and comment, and public hearing processes at relevant points during the development of textual proposals.
  • Countries should make trade advisory bodies more balanced by taking proactive steps to include more diverse legitimate stakeholders such as representatives of Internet users, and organisations working in the areas of human rights, development, media, and consumer issues.

Not entirely by coincidence, these recommendations are similar to those that EFF and other groups and experts delivered to the United States Trade Representative in January this year, which were in turn influenced by the previous year’s Brussels Declaration on Trade and the Internet.

But whereas those documents were developed by a small, self-selected group of experts, the IGF Dynamic Coalition is a completely open, multi-stakeholder group that includes members from civil society, industry, government, the Internet technical community, and international organizations. This gives its recommendations even more weight, and lays down a challenge to international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and to ongoing plurilateral trade negotiations such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to meet these emerging global best practice standards.

Digital Trade at the WTO

The Dynamic Coalition meeting was not the only session held on digital trade at this year’s IGF. A recurring theme in the other sessions has been the future of digital trade discussions at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

At the recently concluded WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires more than 70 WTO members agreed to launch a new working group aimed at establishing international rules to govern digital trade. The push for crafting rules on digital trade outside of the WTO's negotiating stream is largely driven by the divide amongst member nations on how to regulate digital trade. While some countries including the U.S., the European Union countries, and Australia want digital trade to be addressed by the WTO, India and others are opposing the introduction of binding rules on this topic.

On Monday, Public Citizen, the South Centre, and the Third World Network held a panel exploring this controversy. The panel highlighted the divide between developed and developing nations on issues such as data localization, cross-border data flows, transfer of technology, and privacy. Panellists also focused on the decreasing relevance of the WTO and the global multilateral trade system as countries move towards one-on-one negotiations. Overall, the panelists were pessimistic about the prospects of WTO members making fair and balanced digital trade rules.

Marking a contrast with this were two Tuesday sessions organized by UNCTAD and the World Economic Forum (WEF), in which it was broadly accepted that it was inevitable that governments would make digital trade rules, and that we should try to find a way for this to be done in a way that safeguards rather than threatens the free and open Internet. The WEF workshop proposed a multi-track approach including the use of non-binding intergovernmental processes at institutions like the G7 and G20, and non-binding multistakeholder processes, to support and strengthen existing digital trade negotiations.

But even under this multi-track approach, negotiations should still be made more open and transparent, as the Dynamic Coalition has recommended. WEF panelist William Drake stated that nation states should “Craft digital trade norms in a more transparent and participatory manner”, and “increase the participation of Internet users and other relevant stakeholders in national trade consultation processes”.

The broad acceptance of the need for reform of the transparency and inclusivity of trade negotiations, amongst both the strongest proponents of digital trade agreements and their most staunch critics, is a sign that this is an idea whose time has come. We will be using the IGF Dynamic Coalition's resolution on transparency in our engagement with policymakers both at the global and regional level, until finally the legacy of closed, exclusionary trade agreements to write rules for the Internet is a forgotten relic of the past.