February 04, 2019 | Javier Ruiz

ORG calls for public participation in digital trade policy after Brexit

A key aspect of Brexit is the future of trade policy. The Government  has committed to abandon the UK’s customs union with the EU to enter into myriad independent trade deals with countries across the world. We don’t want to get into a discussion about the merits of this approach or whether it is likely to succeed, but assuming it will go ahead we believe that transparency and participation are critical requirements for the development of future trade agreements after Brexit.

ORG is interested in trade because these agreements include provisions that severely affect digital rights such as privacy and access to information. Copyright and other forms of IP have been part of trade deals for over 20 years, but countries such as the US now want to expand the scope to include a whole raft of issues into trade negotiations, including algorithmic transparency and data flows.

The UK Department of International Trade is already pre-negotiating deals with the US, Australia and New Zealand and is engaging with interested parties in some sectors, such as IP, which is very positive. ORG is participating in some of these discussions.

Our concern, as we get closer to actual trade negotiations, is that there will be pressure to maintain most of the information confidential. Historically, trade deals have been shrouded in secrecy, with the executive branch of government claiming exclusive prerogative as part of their role in maintaining international relations. In the past decades, as trade issues have expanded into many socio-economic spheres - such as digital, labour or environmental regulations - generating vigorous debates, this lack of transparency has become unsustainable. Even as recently as in the ACTA and TPP negotiations, civil society has been forced to rely on leaks for information and public media interventions for engagement. This secrecy did not stop the derailing of many trade agreements and in cases has fuelled more public concerns.

We recognise that some information requires to remain confidential, but believe that very high levels of transparency and public participation are possible, and indeed necessary in these unprecedented circumstances. The blocking by the House of Lords of the Trade Bill until Government provides more information  on how international trade deals will be struck and scrutinised after Brexit points at the need for change.

The current situation in Parliament and elsewhere demonstrates the difficulties in finding a social consensus around Brexit and the kind of trade policy that should follow from it. The limited public debate on trade deals so far has quickly led to concerns about food safety, with headlines about chlorinated chicken, and the takeover of public services, particularly the NHS. In this situation we think that transparency, including access to draft texts and positions, will be critical to maintain legitimacy.

Fortunately things are changing elsewhere. The WTO has improved their external transparency over the years, particularly when compared to negotiations on bilateral agreements. Documents are available online, there are solid NGO relationships and public engagement activities. We hope that the UK will go even further than the WTO to become a world leader in enabling public participation in trade policy.