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Sending a Strong Signal on Global Internet Freedom

Internet freedom can have an impact on shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Sending a Strong Signal on Global Internet Freedom

Among the range of complex foreign policy issues yet to be addressed by the Trump administration is a serious concern for global internet freedom. The growing restrictions on internet freedom around the world are easy to document; less so any visible American strategy that would reverse the ominous trends at hand.

Let’s review the dimensions of the problem in brief. The latest data from the respected nonprofit organization, Freedom House, provides a contextual understanding, based on tracking global internet freedom in 65 countries, comprising 88 percent of internet users worldwide.

According to its most recent annual report in this area, Freedom on the Net 2016, two-thirds of the world’s internet users live under government censorship. Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.

The types of blocked content include political communication aimed at promoting democratic values, such as online petitions and calls for public protests. Even satire can be punished severely: a 22-year old in Egypt was imprisoned for three years after photoshopping Mickey Mouse ears on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Unfortunately, this type of criminal penalty is hardly unique.

Overall, Freedom House deemed only 17 surveyed countries to have real internet freedom; 28 were partly free and 20 were characterized as not free. The leading bad state actors should not be surprising: China, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Cuba (North Korea was not included in the survey, alas).

The Obama administration had mixed success promoting global internet freedom. It provided modest funding through a $45 million grant program, with most of these funds given to provide technology for bloggers and dissidents in select restricted countries. But the same tools that protect freedom of expression online can also hide drug traffickers and child pornographers. And the damaging leaks of highly classified NSA data by Edward Snowden hurt the US as it advocated for greater internet freedom, since the notion of centralized government surveillance undercut the message that our nation intended to convey.

In spite of these setbacks, there was a recognition at the highest levels of government that restricting global internet freedom was a growing problem. Less freedom would have enormous potential consequences for dealing with authoritarian regimes and diminish promising communication and ecommerce capabilities of an open global internet.

As technology expands these possibilities, many governments have placed greater restrictions on innovative new digital services. Freedom House has documented arrests for “misuse” of Facebook in 27 countries, of YouTube in 11 countries and of Twitter in 9 countries. These are sobering numbers that the Trump administration will have difficulty ignoring, if only because internet freedom can affect both national security interests and trade imbalance concerns. The US would be hurt if the marketplace of ideas and the online commercial marketplace that thrive here are diminished overseas.

However, there has been radio silence to date about this issue from the White House and the Department of State. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should provide both symbolism and substance for a new US global internet freedom agenda in a high-profile address that echoes the words of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, in a January 2010 speech at the Newseum–“This is a very important speech on a very important subject.”

This phrase alone would send a strong diplomatic signal to the international community that the United States still considers internet freedom to be a critical area of foreign policy engagement. Equally important, it would mark the start of an updated internet freedom agenda based on success metrics and aimed at reversing the all-too-apparent downward spiral of repression.

Stuart Brotman is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation. This article originally appeared here.

A renegotiated NAFTA could yield more shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Upcoming NAFTA Renegotiation Should Expand Telecom Freedom of Choice

President Trump signed an executive order that mandates review of all US trade deals currently in place. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in late January that this would be the administration’s No. 1 trade priority, adding the goal would be to “figure out if we can improve them.”

The North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico is expected to be at the top of the list for renegotiation, given the confirmation of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the likely confirmation of US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer before the April Congressional recess. Both are expected to play leading roles in trade deal renegotiations and assume much higher public profiles once the NAFTA process begins again.

To date, much of the attention given to NAFTA renegotiation has focused on lowering its tariff restrictions. Two subsequent side agreements negotiated by the Clinton administration covered labor and environmental laws of the three countries, with the US having stricter regulation than its counterparts, particularly Mexico. The Trump administration believes that each of these aspects has hurt the US by creating incentives for American companies to install factories and create jobs across the border in Mexico. The theory is that increasing tariffs and requiring comparable labor and environmental standards for our partners will create greater parity with the United States, resulting in fewer American companies looking to relocate.

Less discussed, but still significant, are other aspects of NAFTA that have been more favorable to the US and its domestic companies. The treaty’s telecommunications provisions are a case in point. They include a “bill of rights” for providers and users of telecommunications services that cover access to public telecommunications services; connection to private lines that reflect economic costs and availability of flat-rate pricing; and the right to choose, purchase, or lease terminal equipment best suited to their needs. These free-market principles reflect American values.

Although the provisions have benefitted American companies involved in relocating facilities by giving them greater flexibility in their telecommunications planning, they also have created opportunities for US telecommunications terminal equipment firms to expand their reach to Canada and Mexico without restriction. The net gain thus may be greater than the net loss in economic terms. Consequently, one approach might be to keep telecommunications off the table for NAFTA renegotiations.

But given the growth of the Internet in the 23 years since NAFTA’s implementation, a better approach would be to expand the scope of the telecommunications provisions by removing related trade barriers that have emerged. Barriers such as international roaming rates for mobile calls, restrictions on crossborder transfer of digital information (such as electronic payments and digital signatures), and the forced localization of data centers have a detrimental impact on American companies.  Consequently, the Trump administration would be well-advised to advocate for a broader bill of rights that adheres to the notion of freedom of choice. It should uphold the ability of U.S companies to offer their world-class information services in Canada and Mexico. Such a position may be easier to gain in a renegotiated agreement since the other items on the NAFTA version 2.0 agenda (e.g., tariffs) undoubtedly will receive greater scrutiny and are likely to be far more contentious.

Stuart Brotman is a nonresident senior fellow – governance studies at Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation. This article originally appeared here.