Fast-tracked Singapore digital deregulation agreement completed, but text will be secret until after signing

March 30, 2020: Australia and Singapore concluded the text of a Digital Economy Agreement (DEA) on March 23. There is a summary on the DFAT website but the full text will not be released until after it has been legally checked and signed, which could take at least 1-2 months.

The agreement will replace the e-commerce chapter in the Singapore-Australia FTA.

These negotiations only started in October last year and have been concluded very quickly and secretly. We referred to them in our February submission on the WTO plurilateral e-commerce negotiations which is here.

We are concerned that both the Singapore agreement and the WTO negotiations are following an agenda driven by the big tech companies like Google, Facebook, etc, and will be a bad precedent for similar chapters in other regional and bilateral agreements.

The Singapore DEA will deregulate cross-border data flows and could reduce the ability of both current and future governments to regulate big tech companies in the public interest. This is despite a series of scandals about data privacy and data abuse by those companies and despite current and emerging recommendations from the Australian Consumer & Competition Commission (ACCC) report which recommended more, not less, regulation of the big tech companies. An oped which summarises the issues is here.

The government claims such concerns will be addressed by exceptions to the deregulation rules, but this cannot be tested until the text is released.

Our submission opposed proposals for deregulation of cross-border data flows, bans on requirements to store data locally, and bans on government access to source code and algorithms, because they could prevent governments from regulating in the public interest. We argued that negotiations should be suspended pending clarification of what new regulation is required following the ACCC report.

The Singapore agenda appears to be the same as the recent Hong Kong agreement, and includes the deregulation of data flows in financial services, which we opposed. See our Hong Kong submission here.

The change to the Singapore-Australia FTA will require the following limited parliamentary review process: the text will only be released after the two-month legal review, tabled in parliament and reviewed by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT). The Committee is dominated by the government and cannot change the text. Parliament will only vote if there is specific implementing legislation required.

AFTINET has called for the release of the text and will do a submission to the JSCOT review to expose the agreement to public debate.

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