Regulating Big Data in trade agreements

International trade agreements increasingly deal with the regulation of digital trade. Many of these rules, in particular in recent trade treaties, are directly linked to cross-border data flows and issues in the domain of data governance, such as those of data protection. There is an urgent need for both academics and policymakers to understand this rulemaking and its implications across different societal contexts. This project explored the emergent trade regulatory landscape for data using a combination of analytical tools grounded in law and political science.

  • ​Portrait / project description (completed research project)

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    The aim of this project was to map and analyse the existing rules for data governance in international, regional and bilateral trade agreements. Employing legal and analytical tools from international relations and political science, as well as empirical and data analytics enquiries, the project sought to also reveal how certain regulatory solutions and the political forces behind them have evolved over time. The project linked these developments in trade venues to domestic legal frameworks and shows how trade agreements may limit present and future state actions in the context of Big Data. Finally, the project explored normative issues of legal and policy design and addressed the pertinent question of how policymakers can adequately employ the instruments of international trade law to reflect the changes in the contemporary digital economy.

  • Background

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    Regulating Big Data across borders poses a dilemma. On the one hand, this type of regulation challenges the sovereignty of states. On the other hand, it may constitute a significant barrier to free trade and impede the growth of the digital economy and data-driven innovation. Solving this dilemma involves difficult political choices. Decision-makers must have the necessary information and a profound understanding of the big picture to balance the trade-offs. Trade rules form an important part of this picture.

  • Aim

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    The project demonstrated the ways in which international trade law applies to data governance. It also provides a detailed context for the sorts of decisions that policymakers will need to take concerning Big Data in trade agreements. For example, should traditional data and Big Data be treated differently? And should there be specific rules governing privacy protection?

  • Relevance/application

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    The dataset we generated is valuable in its own right and useful for other research and policy efforts. The project’s interdisciplinary research on data governance in trade agreements can make an important contribution to the existing literature and strengthen Swiss competence in these global issues.

  • Results

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    The project addressed all tasks in the original research design and delivered substantial scholarly work. Particular mention deserves our dataset TAPED, which is freely available and provides the most comprehensive information on data regulation in trade agreements so far. Our initial conjecture that trade law will become a major platform for data governance was confirmed by ongoing developments and strengthened the relevance and the impact of the project’s work.

    A key research result and a highlight of the entire project was the publication of the volume "Big Data and Global Trade Law" with Cambridge University Press. The collection explores the relevance of global trade law for data, Big Data and cross-border data flows from the perspective of different disciplines and provides a valuable orientation for policymakers. The book is available open access on Cambridge Core.

  • Original title

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    The Governance of Big Data in Trade Agreements: Design, Diffusion and Implications