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Restoring Confidence in the Digital Economy

How do we restore trust and confidence in the underpinnings of the digital economy in the wake of unsettling disclosures about international surveillance practices?

That question is top of mind for policymakers in the US and European Union as they ponder the possibility of a grand, new transatlantic trade and investment partnership. As I noted in speeches this week in Brussels and Paris, getting the answer right will be critical if we are going to capture maximum benefit from the kinds of software innovations that are transforming everything from the way manufacturers manage their supply chains to the way doctors provide healthcare.

There is no question that disclosures about surveillance programs have raised important privacy and security questions that deserve a serious, thoughtful debate. But it is also important not to conflate separate issues. National security concerns don’t have to undermine technology innovation and economic growth — and we shouldn’t allow them to.

BSA strongly supports reforming surveillance regimes to build trust and confidence in the technologies that drive the modern economy. That’s why we have urged US officials to increase transparency around government requests for data. We are encouraged that broader reform proposals are now being put forward by the Obama Administration and Congress.

But surveillance reform is not just a US matter. So there needs to be a robust international dialogue on surveillance norms, and there are a number of things that should be on the table as part of that dialogue:

  • First, countries around the world all should take action to improve the transparency of their data-collection practices.
  • Second, governments should work together to develop a “shared language” on transparency — so that when agencies disclose information about surveillance demands, people can understand it.
  • Third, we should improve the system of mutual legal assistance treaties (“MLATs”) that law enforcement agencies rely on when they pursue investigations.

As a former trade negotiator, I know from first-hand experience how hard it can be to find agreement on complex issues like these. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. In the absence of constructive discussions about national security considerations, there is a real risk that countries will adopt the wrong kinds of solutions.

Already, as BSA has documented extensively, there has been a rising tide of digital protectionism around the world. Particularly concerning has been a movement toward undue restrictions on the flow of information across borders. Some countries are requiring companies to put servers inside their borders to do business there. Others are adopting heavy-handed preferences for locally developed technologies, particularly in government procurement.

In Europe, recent policy discussions about how to promote cloud computing have been colored at times with protectionist rhetoric. For example, the idea of a “Schengen area for data” has been discussed on the one hand as a way to enable the digital single market — but also as a way to shield EU firms from international competition. It has been alarming that some have even suggested creating a dedicated, EU-only cloud infrastructure.

As a practical matter, attempting to lock data inside national borders — and keep competitors out — is self-defeating. It sends a validating signal to other, less transparent markets that it is okay for them to turn inward. It also limits the horizons of domestic companies when they want to export to foreign markets. But more fundamentally, attempting to balkanize the Internet would be a perversion of what it does and what it stands for. It would subvert the architecture of the Internet and subvert the benefits it has brought the world.

Europe and the United States have an opportunity today to show the world there is a better way. We need to promote a globally integrated marketplace that gives everyone the opportunity to capture maximum value from the cloud and digital services.

The goals of national security, data privacy and technology innovation cannot be held apart as mutually exclusive. We need to envision and drive towards a world of mutual trust, dynamic innovation and broadly beneficial growth.

Victoria Espinel

Author:

Victoria Espinel is a respected authority on the intersection of technology innovation, global markets and public policy. She leads strategic efforts that help shape the technology landscape in 60 countries through work in BSA’s 10 global offices.

Espinel also serves as the President of Software.org: the BSA Foundation. Software.org is an independent and nonpartisan international research organization created to help policymakers and the broader public better understand the impact that software has on our lives, our economy, and our society.

Espinel served for a decade in the White House, for both Republican and Democratic Administrations as President Obama’s advisor on intellectual property and, before that, as the first ever chief US trade negotiator for intellectual property and innovation at USTR. She was also a professor of international trade and intellectual property at the George Mason School of Law.

Espinel is a founding and ongoing co-sponsor of Girls Who Code’s Washington, DC, summer immersion program, which empowers young women to pursue careers in STEM fields. She speaks before audiences around the world to build visibility for the amazing things people can do with software, and encourages businesses, governments, and the public to support a policy environment that will enable even more software breakthroughs.

Espinel chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Digital Economy and Society. She was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN), the principal advisory group for the US government on international trade. She holds an LLM from the London School of Economics, a JD from Georgetown University Law School, and a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriaespinel.

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