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Opening Spaces for Digital Rights Activism: Multilateral Trade Negotiations

By Burcu Kilic and Renata Avila

Download the full report 2.6 MB

The largest, most powerful tech companies are putting into motion a perverse initiative to dictate what internet and digital policy laws will look like around the world. And if they succeed, they will set in stone rules that would let them continue to harvest and exploit our data, limit free expression online, and violate a number of other human rights. Big tech seeks to paralyze all governments and public interest institutions from being able to put checks on their power and rein them in ever again.

In January, a group of 76 countries announced plans to push forward a global framework on “electronic commerce” issues on the last day of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The brief joint statement came from nearly half of the 164 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It confirmed rumors that this subdivision of WTO members would commence negotiations on e-commerce issues.

These countries are moving ahead despite being unable to secure support from the rest of the WTO member countries over the past few years to launch formal WTO negotiations on their agenda. Without an official “mandate,” or approval through formal WTO processes, this bloc of countries has announced plans to proceed on the sidelines of the organization and will continue to work on negotiations on a “plurilateral basis.”

This report from Public Citizen and the Internet Policy Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School details the ways in which Big Tech has tried to use the WTO to establish a new international agreement on so-called “e-commerce” issues. The report warns about the damaging sort of rules that would result from a negotiation process shrouded by secrecy and heavily influenced by the tech industry itself.

But why do digital policy matters fall under the domain of trade in the first place? Big Tech has succeeded in defining data as a tradeable commodity.

The report provides readers with an overview of possible entry points through which civil society organizations can engage in these debates. These are based on observations around the World Trade Organization’s 11th Ministerial Conference negotiations in Argentina and other trade negotiation spaces. Some of the main tactics include:

  • Developing a well-equipped and trained force of public interest advocates ready to challenge anti-human rights arguments, ask the right questions, shift the public debate, and slow the pace of discussions
  • Connecting country-based multi-sectoral coalitions in internationally-coordinated “inside-outside” campaigning that can operate simultaneously on the local, national and international levels

The WTO’s expansion agenda has been thwarted before. Twenty years ago at the Battle of Seattle, a series of public actions by activists at the WTO Ministerial meeting finally got the world to pay attention to how corporate interests had hijacked “trade” negotiations to undermine public health, the environment and other public interests. Creative actions and direct confrontations made headlines internationally as the WTO talks collapsed.

What is less well-known is that activists and policy experts had been working behind the scenes for three years leading up to the Seattle meeting. They were organizing to influence the inside process leading to each relevant WTO discussion and decision point leading to the meeting, with hundreds of one-on-one meetings, group briefings, and more. National coalitions of CSOs worked in tandem with international allies on a coordinated strategy to educate and activate the public and domestic officials.

It may have been the protests in Seattle that made the headlines, but this long inside game was critical to laying the groundwork to derail a scheme backed by the world’s most powerful corporations and governments. The challenge now is to build a movement internationally to stop the next WTO expansion into digital policy.


Burcu Kilic directs Public Citizen’s Digital Rights Program and is a research director for Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines.