reThink Trade: “An amazing research paper unearths how the tech industry invented the concept of digital trade and sold it to government officials. Progressive trade advocates continue to express confusion over the Biden administration’s trade policies. Despite a U.S. trade representative (USTR) in Katherine Tai who has prioritized a worker-centered trade vision that breaks with the past, negotiations coming out of her office, like the proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), contain measures that would not be out of place in the neoliberal free-trade era. Last month, I wrote about the prevalence of corporate trade advisers and their influence over what policies ultimately get enacted. That could be part of the explanation. But another piece involves a dynamic of regulatory capture that has been newly detailed in a remarkable academic paper. It involves a case study of what is known as digital trade, a concept that didn’t really exist less than a decade ago. Lobbyists for the major tech industries set out to reverse how trade negotiators think about tech platforms, and what policies they should pursue in trade agreements. Through developing social ties and personal networks, they got their position adopted as official policy, and have kept it there by cultivating career staff rather than the ever-changing cast of political appointees. The IPEF’s digital trade chapter bears all the telltale signatures of the tech sector’s model digital trade policy, with no restrictions on companies’ use of personal data, and no added legal liabilities to the platforms based on what users post. It represents an unalloyed triumph for an industry that in other contexts is under siege from the Biden administration. It’s a powerful example of how corporate America quietly bends official Washington toward its will. And we know exactly how the lobbyists did it, because they told the researcher.
- Wendy Li, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, worked as a special assistant in the U.S. trade representative’s office from 2015 to 2017, overlapping the Obama and Trump administrations. She scheduled meetings for the general counsel, and got to know the lobbyists who wanted to talk to her bosses. When she decided to write a research paper about how corporate power shapes policy, she called up those lobbyists, who were happy to explain their strategies. Li’s paper, “Regulatory Capture’s Third Face of Power,” features a refreshingly blunt series of quotes from anonymous tech lobbyists, explaining how they infiltrate the minds of trade professionals.”