Global public sector union investigates e-commerce / digital economy impact

May 27, 2020: The Public Services International report, Digital Trade Rules and Big Tech: surrendering public good to private power, by Professor Jane Kelsey, University of Auckland, analyses the e-commerce chapter of the Comprehensive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership and some specific case studies, with alarming conclusions and a call for action.

It finds that digital trade transfers control of public services to the big tech companies, and that their main leverage is control of data and source code. This has a significant negative impact on quality of services, employee rights and working conditions, and government revenues. This transfer of control happens whether the public service is directly privatised or not.

Kelsey argues that digital trade rules, as set out in bilateral or regional free trade agreements such as the TPP-11 or the even more recent US-Canada-Mexico Agreement, have been written to suit the interests of Big Tech, without adequate privacy safeguards. In 2014, the US Trade Representative published these demands in the ‘Digital 2 Dozen Principles’.

One case study is the UK National Health System contract with a Google health subsidiary DeepMind Health to process patient records of UK citizens for several London hospitals, without seeking patient consent. The information included details of drug overdoses, abortions, and whether individuals were HIV positive. The UK’s data protection watchdog found that Google failed to keep commitments made to keep the data secure and private.

Another case study is Smart Cities, a new ‘development’ framework promoted by both the World Bank – Asian Development Bank, and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Examples include the Songdo project, built from scratch on reclaimed land as part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone, through a Private-Public Partnership between Incheon Metropolitan City, KT (Korea Telecom) and US company Cisco. Despite $40 billion in expenditure, the city was not completed by its target date of 2017, and is described as ‘overdue, overpriced and underpopulated,’ a ‘ghost-town’ with few residents or big businesses moving there.

The report recommends that the PSI call for a moratorium on e-commerce negotiations until far more extensive research on the impacts of digital trade are undertaken, by both the industry and the trade unions. It proposes that the PSI examine options for public control of data, and undertake a specific study of the interaction of industrial laws and digital trade, to better identify its impact on workers’ rights. Finally it recommends education and activist campaigns against e-commerce negotiations in free trade agreements and at the World Trade Organisation.