Beyond Privacy: Trans-Pacific Partnership & Its Potential Impact on the Cyber Domain

For months, there has been sharp criticism of the secret negotiations surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is on track to becoming the world’s largest trade agreement covering 40% of the global economy. If implemented by all twelve countries involved, this trade agreement would have profound geo-political consequences, largely driven by the exclusion of China from the agreement. As the White House website states, the TPP is a means to rewrite the rules of trade, otherwise “competitors who don’t share our values, like China, will step in to fill that void.” Clearly, in addition to the pursuit of trade openness, this agreement is a major geo-political tool to shape global norms to the US advantage. The geo-political consequences – which may very well play out in the cyber domain – have been all but ignored by the tech community, which has focused almost entirely on the agreement’s privacy implications. This is unfortunate and leads to myopic conversations that ignore the agreement’s larger implications for the tech community, and specifically cybersecurity. While Internet privacy absolutely is a high priority, these arguments are completely misplaced. Instead, the tech community – and especially security – should be very wary of how China may respond to this open pursuit of economic containment. In the least, in the short term it does not bode well for the cooperative agreement made last month between China and the US. To help briefly fill this void, below is a cheat sheet of sorts for those unfamiliar with trade agreements, and the TPPs more probable implications in the cyber domain.

  

  1. Misplaced criticism – Critiques focused solely on the TPP and its potential infringement on digital privacy are simply misplaced. In fact, based on the few aspects of the agreement that address the digital domain, the intent is to protect privacy, not erode it. Moreover, trade agreements have a statistically significant relationship with decreasing government repression, and can support democratic consolidation. If the TPP follows suit of other trade agreements (especially those including some democratic members), it likely will also help support Internet openness, not repression. This includes a component that protects organizations from having to submit source code, thus circumventing a major concern of the tech community when working abroad. Even with those arguments aside, the more appropriate place to target international online privacy concerns would be at the rise of bilateral cyber agreements, not trade agreements.
  2. Turn the map around: Any global map of the TPP with the Eastern hemisphere on the left quickly highlights the economic containment of China.  This is reinforced when considering China’s pursuit of shaping global economic norms through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and more recently pursuit of membership in the European development bank.  Although there has been limited talk about including China in the TPP, China would have to adhere to the rules of privacy protection that are completely orthogonal to its domestic interests and policies around the Great Firewall. Viewing the TPP through the lens of China quickly highlights the likelihood that they are feeling encircled, and may respond accordingly.
  3. Stumbling blocs – Depending on how the TPP plays out, it could mirror the discriminatory trade blocs prevalent during the Interwar Era trade that helped lay the foundation for future conflict. While trade agreements increase trade between countries, it can also lead to a contraction of global trade, and certainly augment tensions between member states and those excluded from the agreement. Clearly, the current environment is extremely different from that of the Interwar era, but trade agreements that perpetuate geo-political fault lines at best will not improve relations that are already tenuous.

 

Given the larger geo-political context surrounding the TPP, those in the tech and security communities would be well advised to spend some time looking at the broader implications of the TPP. In reality, the TPP could be a means to expand the US vision of a free and open internet within signatory states, but that gets lost on those who don’t see the whole picture. This would be especially true if China actually becomes a signatory in the future, much as it did with WTO membership. Until then, China likely perceives the agreement as one to spread US influence in the region, and may be considering a range of retaliatory responses, including their persistent reliance on digital statecraft to achieve political objectives. Instead of a myopic focus on Internet privacy, the security community’s broader concerns should focus on China’s potential retaliation in the digital domain, which impacts national security, economic stability and – given the enormous data breaches of the last year – privacy.