TiSA threatens data sovereignty

James Riley
Editorial Director

WikiLeaks has published 17 documents on the proposed Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) being negotiated behind closed doors by the US, the European Union and 22 other countries including Australia.

The countries negotiating TiSA are responsible for about two thirds of global GDP, and have economies in which services form by far the largest component. The negotiations have been taking place for two years, with no details made public.

The TiSA proposals published by WikiLeaks indicate widespread support among the potential signatories for significantly less regulation of a range of services, including financial services, telecommunications, electronic commerce, maritime services, and air transport services.

Australia is a major player in the negotiations, with the leaked documents containing a range of proposals by Australia which largely follow the US lead in arguing for less regulation and greater privatisation. The leaked documents can be viewed here.

TiSA has received much less publicity that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), details of which have also been exposed by WikiLeaks. Both agreements, as well as the TPP-like Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement, are being negotiated out of public view.

WikiLeaks refers to them as the ‘T-Treaty Trinity’, and note that they all exclude the so-called ‘BRICS’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

The TPP has been widely criticised in many quarters. Many of these criticisms have to do with the secretive nature of the deliberations, and the fact that the corporations which stand to benefit from the treaty’s agreements are being given better access to the negotiators than are the public, who will be affected by them.

One key aspect of the TPP is the sections of it that refer to copyright and intellectual property. There are concerns – which appear totally justified – that it will lead to greater restrictions on copyright, at a time when there are many calls to liberalise copyright and make content more widely and more affordably available.

The published TiSA documents show that the US, Australia, and most other countries are proposing a greatly liberalised trade in international services.

This is not a bad thing in itself, given that services are a growing part of international trade. The free movement of services, like the free movement of goods, is generally advantageous to most parties.

But there is also a general international consensus that some regulation is necessary. Since the excesses that led to the Global Financial Crisis there has been a general trend towards greater regulation of the financial services industry, with the recent actions of many Australian financial advisors and the banks that employ them pointing to problems with a lack of regulatory oversight. TiSA seeks to reverse this trend.

Lowering the regulatory barriers to the international trade in services may have unintended consequences, which is all the more reason these deliberations should be open to public scrutiny.

For example the proposals for the reduction, or even abolition, of restrictions on the international movement of data may affect laws and regulations on data sovereignty. Check this:

“No Party may prevent a service supplier of another Party from transferring, accessing, processing or storing] information, including personal information, within or outside the Party’s territory, where such activity is carried out in connection with the conduct of the service supplier’s business.”

This proposal, by the US and many other countries and not opposed by Australia, is at odds with attempts to ensure that cloud data is stored in particular countries. The Australian Government, for example, has mandated that the cloud suppliers it uses physically store their customer data within Australia.

Data sovereignty, as it has come to be called, is a big issue to many users of cloud services. There are concerns, exacerbated by disclosures from WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, that data stored in the cloud can be subject to laws in jurisdictions with very different views on privacy or data access than those of the country where the data originated.

Trade agreements are, generally speaking, a good thing. We live in a globalised world, and the free flow of information has been one of the great liberalising influences of the modern age. But the secrecy with which these three treaties – ‘the T-Treaty Trinity’ – are being negotiated is at odds with the very ideals they say they support.

Predictably, they have criticised WikiLeaks for making these documents available. What have they got to hide? Western democracy is supposed to be about government with the consent of the governed, who can hardly in a position to give that consent of they don’t know or aren’t told about the agreements supposedly being conducted in their name.

TiSA may very well be a good thing. But we need to know its details, we need debate about its proposals, and we need to ensure that the beneficiaries are the people who elect the governments that are negotiating on their behalf, rather than the corporations whose first allegiance is to their shareholders rather than the public as a whole.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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