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Big Tech’s Big Meltdown Over A Big Consumer Policy Win on Trade

[Reposted from the March/April Edition of PC News]

By Owen Leary and Sarah Stevens

Small businesses, civil rights activists, labor unions, consumers, and elected officials are celebrating a recent win in the fight against Big Tech’s corporate influence. After years of advocacy and public pressure from Public Citizen and our allies, the Biden administration’s U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai reversed U.S. support for problematic “digital trade” provisions pushed during the Trump administration at the behest of Big Tech companies that would have thwarted efforts to protect consumers and vulnerable communities online.

For instance, algorithms used by police and court systems, employers, health institutions can generate racially discriminatory outcomes – about criminal sentencing, hiring decisions and treatment approvals – based on the data on which they were trained and even with no discriminatory intent. In response, the Biden administration and Congress have proposed regulations mandating the pre-review of AI algorithms and source code to help prevent AI from infringing on civil rights.

However, a Trump-era provision included in international trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) would prohibit governments from requiring Big Tech companies to disclose their source code to regulators, essentially shielding Big Tech firms from preliminary government oversight over their algorithms.

Ambassador Tai, hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Public Citizen, explained to members of the civil rights community that the Biden administration had listened to their concerns and reversed U.S. policy in order to better align trade policy with goals to protect vulnerable communities from AI discrimination and other harms.

The USTR’s decision to no longer support such controversial provisions at the WTO has garnered popular support across all sectors of civil society. Over 40 faith groups, consumer advocates, and labor unions delivered a letter in February thanking President Biden for changing policy. Signers included Public Citizen, the Communications Workers of America, the United Steelworkers, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Consumer Federation of America, and more. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also led almost 90 diverse and prominent members of Congress in a letter to President Biden praising the decision and thanking the USTR for protecting the space to safeguard working people from AI.

Big Tech corporations and their allies, however, are dismayed by the deliberate and timely shift away from trade rules written by Big Tech and vehemently oppose the decision. A spokesperson for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank notably funded by large tech firms like Apple and Meta, called the USTR’s announcement “nonsensical” and “misguided.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce harshly criticized the decision as well, suggesting without evidence that the U.S. withdrawal from these proposals will hurt small businesses.

In a laughable role reversal, the Chamber of Commerce even filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to review communications between Public Citizen and USTR, claiming that we and other civil society groups had a “privileged” relationship with USTR. In response, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch Director Melinda St. Louis told reporters that “we advocate for our policy positions, just as the Chamber of Commerce and its members advocate for theirs. The difference is that our positions prioritize the wellbeing of people, rather than corporate profits.”

Not only do the FOIA records demonstrate how Public Citizen has consistently advocated for consumer and civil rights in U.S. trade policy, they also highlight how public education and pressure from civil society can have an impact on policy. It’s no surprise that Big Tech is in distress over the decision. St. Louis remarked that “if tech lobbyists are hysterical over this decision, it would only further prove that this is the right move for everyone else who’s tired of Big Tech’s invasive and anti-competitive business practices.”

Despite the Chamber’s manufactured outrage “on behalf of” small businesses, small businesses across the world are praising the USTR’s decision. (One such example includes a letter to president Biden from a coalition of small tech businesses who joined forces with Yelp to commend the USTR’s efforts to stand up to Big Tech and their “attempts to hijack trade agreements to protect and extend their monopoly power.”) Internationally, more than 50 global consumer and digital rights groups lauded the USTR’s decision not to join specific provisions in the JSI, arguing that governments worldwide should follow suit.

Leaders in the European Union also applauded the decision, expressing their desire to follow the USTR’s example in the future. EU Member of Parliament Helmut Scholz stated that “the European Union should follow in the steps of the U.S, and step back from outdated proposals that favor U.S.-based corporations at the expense of European workers, small businesses, democracy, and human and fundamental rights.”

By not being locked into such binding trade rules pertaining to source code and data flows, governments maintain the ability to regulate Big Tech’s actions to prevent them from dismantling workers’ rights, civil rights, and consumer rights. It is extremely significant that, after previously pushing these “digital trade” provisions that promoted unfair corporate interests and reinforced the power that Big Tech monopolies have over society, the United States has finally taken a step in the right direction.

In an increasingly interconnected, digitized global economy, the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw support for these controversial provisions at the WTO is a momentous accomplishment for consumers, small businesses, and civil rights advocates who wish to build a world that safeguards average working people from the potential harms and risks presented by AI.