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Bringing Internet voices into trade

The Internet is fundamentally transforming global trade.

When we think about trade, we're likely to picture container ships navigating the Panama Canal and large multinational companies with warehouses around the world.

However, trade today also looks like this: millions of small businesses reaching global markets with the touch of a button. Likewise, millions of artists, authors, developers, and publishers are creating apps, movies, music, books, and more for global audiences, on a growing number of platforms and digital outlets. Almost everyone with a smartphone, tablet or laptop is taking part in Internet-driven trade.

At the same time, large companies in sectors from advanced manufacturing to agriculture are using the Internet to transform how they do business.

Together, these changes are having a remarkable impact on trade. Data flows enabled by the Internet — practically non-existent just 15 years ago — now contribute to global economic growth more than the flow of goods.

Governments are rightly taking note of this transformation. In agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiators have started to address Internet issues. They are starting to recognize that restrictive Internet policies can damage trade just as much as high tariffs and quotas.

Trade agreements can be a force for good for the global free and open Internet. They can counter the balkanization or fragmentation of the Internet into disconnected local networks. They can promote access to information. And they can make it easier for a small startup to get off the ground, reach new markets, and challenge competitors anywhere across the globe.

For trade and Internet policy to work together, trade negotiators need to have input from the full range of Internet stakeholders. At the same time, Internet stakeholders need to start engaging in the trade policy process. Small businesses, startups, civil society groups, the Internet technical community, and everyday users all have a stake.

The bad news: the traditionally closed and complex nature of trade negotiations makes engagement by this broader range of stakeholders difficult.

The good news: key players increasingly see the need to increase participation and transparency.

  • Former trade negotiators are urging governments to "solicit public comments on contentious proposals" rather than relying on input only from a small group of cleared advisors. They worry that excessive secrecy is feeding into negative public perceptions of trade.
  • Former White House staffers are putting forward ideas to build more open debate into trade policy development
  • Trade negotiators in the European Union and US are beginning to explore new approaches.

Increasing transparency is a win-win proposition. If we've learned anything from the Internet's history, it's that bringing more voices to the table can produce better outcomes for all. We look forward to continuing the conversation and working with the Internet and trade communities to build out these ideas.