US Big Tech had inside running before IPEF became public

May 4, 2023: Australians first heard about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in March 2022, but Bloomberg reports that emails released to the US public this week show that the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) was seeking the input of Amazon and Google from January 2022. The corporate lobbyists were all former USTR officials.

IPEF includes the US, Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Fiji and Vietnam. The next round of formal IPEF negotiations take place in Singapore next week.

President Biden’s rhetoric about IPEF emphasises the benefits for workers, consumers and the environment, but the reality is that giant internet corporations had the inside running long before trade unions, environment and community advocates were aware of the initiative.

When the US published the “four pillars” for IPEF in September 2022, the Trade Pillar included: “We intend to advance inclusive digital trade by building an environment of trust and confidence in the digital economy, by addressing discriminatory practices, and by promoting trusted and secure cross-border data flows.” This is the Big Tech language for deregulation of cross-border data flows, no requirement for a local presence, and no government access to algorithms and source code.

In a January 2022 email to Amazon, a USTR official requested multiple meetings between Sarah Bianchi, the deputy trade representative, and Michael Punke and Jennifer Prescott, members of Amazon’s government affairs team and former USTR officials, “to get to know them better.” Punke had been a deputy trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organization, while Prescott was an Assistant Trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources. 

Bianchi’s staff emailed to set up an additional meeting with Amazon lobbyist Arrow Augerot, previously deputy assistant for congressional affairs at USTR, in February 2022. And Bianchi’s staff in February contacted Google Cloud lobbyist Behnaz Kibria, another former USTR official, to request an “off-the-record” meeting to get “feedback” on IPEF.

They also show that USTR reached out to South Korean government officials about legislation intended to pare back the power of Apple Inc. and Google’s app stores. 

Bhatia in August 2021 emailed US Trade Representative Katherine Tai about Google’s concerns with the South Korean legislation, adding “we would be grateful for your attention to this issue and for raising those concerns with the Korean government.” Tai wrote back within a few days, agreeing to “touch base with my counterpart(s) in Seoul,” and promising to “make sure we and our teams are in touch with any insights we are able to glean.” 

Progressive US lawmakers are concerned that language in the US IPEF proposal related to digital trade could undermine US regulation of artificial intelligence, privacy and competition. In an April 21, 2023 letter, Warren and lawmakers in both the House and Senate said the draft could “tie Congress’s and regulators’ hands,” citing how similar language in the US-Canada trade deal has emerged in debates about digital regulations under consideration in Canada. 

Countries including Japan, South Korea and Australia have been leaders on regulation related to the tech giants. 

The emails were obtained by the advocacy group Demand Progress via a public-records request and shared with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office. Warren’s office issued a report on the ties between the big tech companies and USTR as public-interest advocates increasingly scrutinize corporate influence over digital trade policy. Read the full Bloomberg report here.