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WTO trade talks must respect privacy

Together with over 40 consumer and digital rights groups, EDRi calls on global governments to place people’s fundamental rights to data protection and privacy at the centre of digital trade negotiations.

By EDRi · November 16, 2020

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Digital trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) – formally known as ‘joint initiative on e-commerce’ – started in 2019 and now comprise more than 80 countries. The negotiators say the initiative aims to make it easier for consumers and companies to trade online, but the resulting trade commitments could also weaken European privacy and data protection standards that are rooted in fundamental rights law.

A purported objective of some countries is to ensure the transfer of data across international borders (‘cross-border data flows’). In today’s statement, consumer and digital rights groups urge WTO negotiators to seriously consider the implications of these rules on people’s privacy and personal data protection before committing to them in both present and future trade deals.

Some countries seem to prioritise the unhindered flow of personal data over people’s most basic right to privacy and data protection. Such data flow rules exist already in other trade deals – such as the new US-Mexico-Canada agreement – and it effectively restricts countries’ ability to regulate data protection and privacy, which would only be allowed under strict conditions in order to avoid ‘obstructing’ data flows. For consumer and digital rights group this is not acceptable.

The protection of people’s rights comes first

In its statement, the 42 signatories call upon WTO negotiators to follow our suggested approach for successful negotiations:

  • If ‘cross-border data flows’ rules are part of the future WTO agreement, existing safeguards must ensure that people’s privacy and data protection rights always have priority over data flow rules so that the digital economy can thrive and people can trust that fundamental rights law is respected. [1]
  • If these conditions cannot be met, countries must exclude or not commit to rules on cross-border data flows in the negotiations and in any final deal. Endorsing other binding international rules – notably Convention 108+ for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data – will be more balanced. 55 countries have become parties to Convention 108+ already.

Personal data cannot travel alone, privacy rights must travel with it

International data transfers are an important feature of the present-day global economy. However, when transferring data cross-borders, data cannot travel alone. It must travel with strong and effective privacy and personal data protections.

The world has more than 140 data protection laws. Some, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), ensure that citizens’ data is protected when companies decide to transfer it abroad. Laws therefore play an important role in ensuring data flow with privacy.

All 80 countries that are part of digital trade negotiations should be able to have and enforce high levels of rights protections, so we do not have first, second or third-class privacy protections across the globe.

[1] The signatories support the European Union’s proposal in this regard. See EU proposal for WTO e-commerce rules (2.7 and 2.8) from April 2019.