This week, hundreds of Internet activists, bloggers and officials from the public and private sectors will gather in Budapest to talk about the promise and peril of free expression on the Internet. People from Armenia to Kazakhstan to Zimbabwe will compare notes at a conference organized by Google and the Central European University about the state of play in what is an increasingly controversial and important arena.
Most of the debate will revolve around questions about human rights, technological innovation and — in the wake of the Wikileaks Afghanistan release — how to protect national security while increasing access to information online. There is another issue, a fundamental one about global trade and economic growth, that will also be discussed.
Simply put, evidence is fast accumulating that governments that block the free flow of information into, out of and within their nations are damaging their own prospects for economic growth. These obstacles are not just barriers to free expression, but barriers to free trade and, ultimately, a nation’s chances of achieving the kind of political stability that only economic growth can bring.
The good news is that there are opportunities for like-minded governments, supported by citizens and corporations, to design and put into use a set of 21st-century trade rules that can help people all over the world seize the opportunities of the new technology era.
Establishing a framework that takes into account the enormous impact of the Internet economy will help entrepreneurs create new businesses, businesses create new jobs and countries increase their exports.
In the ever-changing and uncertain online world, this much is clear: Information is the currency of the Internet. The Internet has transformed traditional commerce, created an astounding array of new economic opportunities, and expanded international trade.
The tremendous spread of the Internet — faster than the spread of any previous technology — has created new, rapidly expanding markets. Today, more than 5 billion people have access to cellphones, and 2 billion have access to the Internet. These are tools with unprecedented powers that help farmers in Kenya to get the best price for their crops and traders in Hong Kong to instantaneously invest huge sums. Little wonder that demand for information across national borders has grown exponentially.
While many governments have welcomed this trend, some have recoiled at the new openness — and are doing their best to make sure that the Internet is a restricted space.
Today about 40 governments around the world disrupt the free flow of online information — a tenfold increase from just a decade ago. Popular tactics include incorporating surveillance tools into Internet infrastructure; blocking online services; imposing new, secretive regulations; and requiring onerous licensing regimes.
In fact, direct government blockage of an Internet service is tantamount to a customs official stopping certain goods at the border. A small business that advertises on Bing, Google or Yahoo, for example, cannot reach certain markets when the platform is effectively blocked — or when access is slowed. Wildly successful enterprises like iTunes and eBay are locked out of seeking out new consumers. And multinational financial institutions cannot help but take steps to make sure they have access to their clients’ data while protecting it better than ever before.
To successfully export to or invest in a new market, a company needs to be able to understand the rules of the road and have some level of confidence that the government will not arbitrarily interfere with its business.
But when governments impose non-transparent and arbitrary regulation on online services — or use information regimes to favor their own national players — they make it difficult for businesses to make and execute commercial plans. Many governments do not even make publicly available their basic rules on restricting content.
Governments often are able to succeed in abusive regulation of Internet companies and information because they require that data be stored in-country, effectively requiring local investment. Requirements like this reduce the economic efficiency of the Internet, which otherwise allows a business in any one country to easily reach users and consumers around the world.
It is becoming harder for companies to compete in foreign markets where the government favors local firms. In China and elsewhere, companies in the information technology and other sectors are forced to compete on a playing field that is anything but level.
Given the stakes involved, policymakers must develop and implement an agenda that aligns Internet policy with the core principles of international trade. Governments should not treat the two as stand-alone silos, but should recognize that many Internet censorship-related actions are unfair trade barriers.
Governments should also use existing trade rules to challenge Internet censorship measures that are insufficiently transparent, unreasonably administered, or biased in favor of domestic players. Finally, governments should negotiate new trade disciplines — specifically, the Trans Pacific Partnership — that reflect the growing role of Internet-related trade in the global economy.
These issues present not only a tremendous challenge, but an opportunity — an opportunity for governments to align trade policy with the 21st century economy and to promote the many trade benefits that come from an open Internet.
The Internet’s power and ability to deliver benefits to the international trading system depends on the free flow of information across the entire global network. When data is blocked or disrupted, businesses and consumers who depend on the Internet as a tool of trade are affected.
David Drummond, the senior vice president and chief legal counsel for Google.