On the day the UK government announced the start of negotiations on a new breed of "Digital Economy Agreement" between the UK and Singapore, the House of Commons International Trade Committee published their first report from the committee's inquiry into digital trade and data (defining digital trade as "the digitally enabled transactions of goods and services").
This inquiry was launched in December 2020, with a broad ambit of exploring "a range of issues, including digital trade and data provisions in Free Trade Agreements, concerns around the security and privacy of data, the environmental impact of digital trade, and the relevant legal frameworks".
This first report collates evidence gathered by the committee from a range of academics and experts, along with evidence gathered through the questioning of the relevant government ministers.
The committee's conclusions and recommendations seem to focus primarily on the absence of "a digital trade and data strategy", which should "detail the Government’s long-term approach and policy objectives in relation to digital trade and data" (para 43) - while the committee noted that the government has "five pillars and six negotiating objectives" (paras 21-23), these "do not constitute a cross-FTA digital trade strategy".
The committee had a number of more specific recommendations when looking at the specific "digital" and "data" areas of concern (data protection, source code, consumer protection and online harms) in free trade agreements (FTAs) currently being pursued by the UK government.
The majority of these recommendations are focused on ensuring the UK government carries out appropriate risk assessments of how the provisions in each such FTA will impact on the highlighted areas of concern - for example, in relation to data protection, the extent to which the data provisions in an FTA could impact on the UK's adequacy status under the EU GDPR (the EC's final adequacy decision also coincidentally being published on the same day).
It remains to be seen whether the UK government will respond to these recommendations by drawing up a more comprehensive digital trade strategy although, given we are currently waiting for a final version of the government’s updated comprehensive strategy on data (see our post here on this), updated digital and cyber strategies and a new AI strategy this is unlikely to be seen any time soon.
The negotiation of the Digital Economy Agreement with Singapore may, however, give an opportunity to put into practice some of the committee's other recommendations around risk assessments, and it seems likely the International Trade Committee will look to hold ministers accountable in producing these assessments as part of this process.
"With the UK forging independent trade agreements, this is a pivotal moment for the Government to produce a coherent digital trade strategy, laying out the rules of engagement and how we can protect our data online." (28th June 2021)