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Don’t Let NSA Leaks Trump Trade Talks

By Jake Colvin November 5, 2013

Permitting these revelations to undermine transatlantic efforts to write new rules to ensure fair and transparent access for Internet-enabled data and services would be a mistake.

Edward Snowden has provided the gift that keeps on giving.  While his disclosures about confidential spy programs present a huge headache for the U.S. Government, they also threaten to slow the pursuit of a more open global digital marketplace.

Snowden’s disclosures have brought more scrutiny to efforts by businesses and governments to craft new international rules to ensure access to digital data and services across borders. One of the most promising avenues for such commitments is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement now being negotiated by the United States and Europe.  As William Mauldin points out in the Wall Street Journal, the NSA revelations have undoubtedly complicated the discussion of online information and e-commerce issues in the transatlantic trade talks.

The NSA revelations are serious and deserve scrutiny to ensure that the congressional and judicial checks and protections that underpin U.S. intelligence activities are functioning properly, and that the agencies do not overstep their bounds.

Permitting these revelations to undermine transatlantic efforts to write new rules to ensure fair and transparent access for Internet-enabled data and services would be a mistake, however.

The great economic promise of the Internet is that it helps to democratize international trade, changing who trades and how we trade.  Thanks to services from the likes of DHL and UPS, eBay and Etsy, Intuit and Visa, and Google and Microsoft, startups and small businesses from New York to Nigeria are able to participate effectively in the global marketplace on a broad scale for the first time in history. Manufacturers like General Electric can monitor power generation equipment across borders. Consumer product companies and retailers can reach out to consumers directly over social media.

The United States and European Union have a unique opportunity to write new trade rules that could serve as the basis for a more seamless global digital economy, improving the ability of entrepreneurs, businesses and consumers to tap into a borderless online marketplace.

This pursuit is especially important to counter emerging efforts around the world to balkanize the Internet and limit the reach of digital technologies.  Countries from Brazil to Vietnam have instituted or proposed measures that would create new hurdles to the movement of information online. Left unchecked, such efforts threaten to erode the open nature of the Internet and its promise for economic development.

While trade discussions over the parameters of commercial information must be kept separate from national security talks, the reality is that it will be critical for the United States Government to rebuild trust with foreign governments as well as foreign citizens when it comes to Washington’s surveillance activities.  Whether it is through stepping up U.S. Government outreach to other nations, permitting U.S.-based internet service providers to clarify the scope of the requests that they have received under programs such as PRISM or taking steps to reform programs to enhance data protections and oversight and accountability mechanisms, as a group of companies has called for, it is critical to allay concerns.

Doing so will help clear a path for the separate and extremely important work that needs to be done within the transatlantic trade discussions and other international forums to improve the framework for the global digital marketplace.

Jake Colvin is Vice President for Global Trade Issues with the National Foreign Trade Council.