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Digital rights and IPEF: How the US trade agreement impacts technology, trade, and human rights in the Asia-Pacific

Participants during the fifth in-person listening session on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. EngageMedia was represented by Digital Rights Project Coordinator Prapasiri “Nan” Suttisome (second from left). Photo from Focus on the Global South, used with permission.

On September 14, 2023, EngageMedia was invited to share how the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) would impact technology, trade, and fundamental human rights in the region during the trade agreement’s stakeholder listening session held in Bangkok. Organised by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and the US Department of Commerce, the session is the fifth negotiating round between the US and 11 Asia-Pacific countries.

Grounded in the Thai context, EngageMedia Digital Rights Project Coordinator Prapasiri “Nan” Suttisome cautioned that should comparable proposals in the Digital Trade Chapter within the Trade Pillar resemble those found in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), there could be significant implications. She also emphasised the importance of considering the implications for transparency, accountability, and the ability to ensure that technology is used in a way that respects fundamental human rights.

Suttisome summarised the implications below:

1. The IPEF would allow the free flow of data across borders by restricting the imposition of localization norms.

If IPEF has enforceable cross-border data flow requirements, it would demand these personal data protections to be removed from Thailand’s Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), the first comprehensive data protection legislation in the country.

The PDPA was significantly influenced by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), particularly in its emphasis on cross-border data transfer. The law was put in place to safeguard individuals’ personal data, ensuring that it is not mishandled, misused, or exploited by companies and organisations. It was a vital step toward enhancing digital rights and protecting the privacy of Thai citizens.

Additionally, the ban on requiring local computing facilities, which is crucial for audits and accountability, may become inaccessible for governments and civil society organisations alike.

2. Enforcers should not establish safeguards against forced source-code disclosure as a condition of market access.

Preventing such disclosures in the future may lead to algorithmic discrimination in areas like employment policies, insurance policies, or search engine rankings which will have an effect on the competitiveness of Thai businesses.  The non-disclosure could also hinder the trajectory of AI regulation and transparency many governments aim to put in place in the future.

3. Electronic authentication should not be deregulated.

Governments must be able to require the encryption of sensitive data in transit, including but not limited to financial transactions and biometric data.

EngageMedia Digital Rights Project Coordinator Prapasiri “Nan” Suttisome. Photo from Focus on the Global South, used with permission.

Technology is evolving rapidly, and incorporating these stipulations into the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) could impede the timely development of appropriate regulations and policies. These are not merely trade matters but digital rights concerns, and must thus be excluded from IPEF.

Other civil society organisations present at the session include the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development; Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch; the Center of United and Progressive Workers (SENTRO); the Assembly of the Poor, and FTA Watch Thailand.

The Asia-Pacific countries included in the IPEF are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Fiji India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.