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Tech and telecoms advisory group set up to help trade negotiations

Department of International Trade launches new Trade Advisory Groups to guide trade negotiations with other countries

International trade secretary Liz Truss has announced the creation of 11 new Trade Advisory Groups (TAGs), including one for telecoms and technology, to drive the UK’s trade negotiations with Japan, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

According to the Department of International Trade (DIT), the groups have been established to access the knowledge and expertise of the UK’s top business people, who will use their industry experience to inform the nations’ negotiating positions and secure benefits for their sector.

“This is about bringing business closer to the negotiating table and using their expertise to help secure the best possible deals that deliver jobs and growth across Britain. Talks with Japan, the US, Australia and New Zealand are entering their crucial latter stages, so it is only right that we step up engagement with vital industries to utilise their technical and strategic expertise,” said Truss.

“I want business in Britain to feel engaged and informed about the work we’re doing to build an independent trade policy and how it impacts them. As we recover from coronavirus we want to strike deals that benefit every part of the country so we can build back better and deliver a fairer country for all.”

The 11 TAGs are Agri-Food; Automotive, Aerospace and Marine; British Manufacturing and Consumer Goods; Investment; Life Sciences; Tech and Telecoms; Chemicals; Financial Services; Professional Advisory Services; Transport Services; and Creative Industries.

The Tech and Telecoms TAG has 18 members from the likes of Facebook, Sage, NEC Europe, IBM, BT Group, Salesforce, Samsung and Fujitsu.

“We’re pleased to see this come together and are delighted to be a part of it. The devil in trade policy is very much in the detail so for tech startups there are plenty of instances where the nuanced language of agreements will matter,” Dom Hallas, director of tech industry body the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), told Computer Weekly. “I’m optimistic that these groups will be able to engage in that sort of detail on both the future trade relationship with the US and beyond.”

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Although not included on the official list of members, TechUK deputy CEO Antony Walker will also be joining the Tech and Telecoms TAG.

“I am delighted to join the senior group of experts and work alongside the government to progress tech policy objectives, highlight market access concerns and opportunities, and achieve the best possible outcomes for tech and telecoms,” he said.

“The tech sector in the UK is relentlessly innovative and resilient. As we chart a new path in the world, we must champion the UK’s competitive strengths in the digital economy both at home and abroad.”

However, others are concerned about the lack of trade union, non-governmental organisation (NGO) and academic representation in the TAG which, according to director of Global Justice Now (GJN) Nick Dearden, could be because of their reluctance to sign non-disclosure agreements that would have gagged them from speaking publicly about the negotiations.

“The Tech and Telecoms group looks like a corporate dream, and it’s very worrying because the way we regulate the big tech sector impacts on all of our lives, our rights and our democracy. Plans to prevent effective regulation or taxation via trade deals is supported by many big tech companies, unsurprisingly, but it is definitely not in the public interest,” he told Computer Weekly.

“By purging all critical voices from their trade advisory groups because they won't sign gagging clauses, they have shown they're not even interested in pretending to be concerned by the major concerns which so many people share. The result could well be a disaster for our online rights, and for the much needed debate we need to have about regulating big tech companies. This change is yet another reason to stop the US trade deal, the deal that could have the most far reaching effects on all of us.”

Internet Association

The Internet Association, which represents some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb, published a document on 14 July, titled Digital trade priorities for a US-UK FTA, calling for negotiators to prohibit a number of potential measures that could make it easier for the UK government to tax and regulate the technology firms it represents.

This includes prohibiting a digital services tax – which many countries are turning to in order to redress the lack of tax paid by multinational tech companies – and any measures that would remove the intermediary liability protection enjoyed by US-based digital platforms, preventing them from being held accountable for their role in spreading disinformation and online harm.

“Without intermediary liability protections, internet services would not be able to function as open platforms for trade and communication,” said the document. “In the US, intermediary liability protections are key to enabling companies to moderate online content and enhancing digital safety.”

The lobbying group also called for negotiators to prohibit the disclosure of source code to regulators as a condition for letting technology imports into the market, which it claimed “compromised technology and hurt trade”, as well as any requirements to store or process data locally, claiming: “When information is restricted, the economy and exports are hurt.”

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