The Associated Whistleblowing Press released portions of draft text proposed by the United States for the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) this week, revealing some alarming provisions that indicate how tech companies have been involved in influencing a secret international deal. The language of the leaked treaty shows provisions that could impact privacy online, and net neutrality—with no public consultation or opportunities for open debate. What is dispiriting is some of the language of these Internet regulations almost certainly comes from tech companies, who have joined the many other lobbyists fighting for their special interests behind closed doors.
TISA is yet another so-called trade deal which began negotiations in 2013 and is being hammered out in back room meetings between 23 countries around the world, including the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. According to the leaked documents, countries involved in the negotiations have agreed to keep the text of this agreement classified for five years after it enters into force. On top of the five-year-embargo, neither the negotiation rounds nor the topics discussed in this agreement have ever been made public.
Banning Limits on the "Free Flow of Information"
TISA contains a provision that bans countries from regulating how and when any given company can move, access, and process the data for its services:
Article X.4: Movement of Information 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 particular language seems to be aimed at subverting data localization laws. In some cases, this could be a good thing. Governments that might want to enact national censorship filters could, theoretically, be challenged under such provisions. The "free flow of information" is the term government officials and certain tech giants use to refer to these sorts of rules, and they often place emphasis on their potential to protect free expression and access to information on the Internet.
But that benefit could come at the cost of consumer protections for personal data. For instance, TISA could directly threaten EU's privacy regulations, which require companies to store EU citizens' personal data locally to ensure that those companies follow the EU's strict legal requirements for handling citizens' data. Similar laws exist in Colombia and Mexico, and in Paraguay, which is also a party to TISA, civil society groups are now campaigning for such laws.
The companies with the most to lose from stronger privacy regulation are those multi-nationals whose revenue revolves around the trading and sharing of personal data: in other words, tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Internet advertising networks. Language like this is intended to make their lives easier: but they also have a profound effect on how Internet users rights are protected.