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While Brexit rages on, the UK needs to be looking at the global picture

Talks at the World Trade Organisation in October will shape the future of digital trade, and it is crucial the voice of UK tech is heard

At the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) 11th Ministerial Conference last December, new discussions were kicked off on global e-commerce. While Brexit continues to absorb a great deal of time and energy in the UK, what is decided in these talks will play a significant role in shaping the digital economy worldwide over the decades ahead.

If new rules around digital trade are going to work for businesses and reflect the realities on the ground, it is important for digital firms to be engaged in this process, and to champion the benefits that technology can bring globally.

This is why the talks at the WTO Public Forum, from 2-4 October, are very timely. The open and liberal digital status quo worldwide is beginning to fracture. From new restrictions on data flows to new measures of forced data localisation to the increasing threat of tariffs on digital transactions – all of these represent the risk of a world defined by digital protectionism.

Data versus privacy

One of the great challenges the sector faces globally is how to strike a balance between allowing the free flow of data and ensuring that the privacy of individuals is adequately protected.

Data not only represents something that is traded in its own right, but the flow of data also increasingly underpins much of the world’s tangible trade as well. Already it has added around $2.8tn to world GDP. However, no global framework currently exists, and how the world should approach this question is one of the central objectives of these talks.

TechUK is attending the talks to raise these issues with policy-makers, along with other critical topics for the sector, such as preventing mandatory data localisation, making the ban on digital tariffs permanent and working to prohibit the forced disclosure of source codes as a condition of market access. All of these are questions to which a wrong answer could undermine the foundations of the global digital economy.

“One of the great challenges the tech sector faces globally is how to strike a balance between allowing the free flow of data and ensuring that the privacy of individuals is adequately protected”
Julian David, TechUK

This is why we are taking a delegation of tech companies who can help explain to Geneva policy-makers the real worries and risks they face on these topics, as well as what their priorities are in a fast-changing and volatile trading world.

Global rules

TechUK is also hosting a panel on “The rise of digital: tech and the changing nature of value added” to bring together industry, diplomats and development experts to look ahead at how technologies such as 3D printing are transforming the world of manufacturing, and how global rules will need to adapt.

Developments like this help to open manufacturing to more people than ever and make supply chains more sustainable. When combined with e-commerce platforms that provide easy access to international markets, we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the model in international trade.

But there are other global challenges too. From access to skills and basic infrastructure needs such as reliable electricity and internet connections, to the risks for countries whose development model is dependent on manufacturing – these are aspects of change that need to be addressed to ensure that digitisation of the global economy is inclusive to all.

If the global community can get these questions right and construct a rule book that provides a firm foundation for digital trade, the UK tech sector will be a chief beneficiary. TechUK will do all it can to help move the debate forward and ensure the solutions are the best for tech.

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