21 Nov 2018

Recap: Conference on Big Data and Trade

by Clarence Siziba, WTI PhD researcher. The Conference on Big Data and Global Trade Law took place at the University of Lucerne, from 16-17 November 2018.

The event was organised by Prof. Dr. Mira Burri in her role as a principal investigator of the National Research Project: ‘NRP75 - The Governance of Big Data in Trade Agreements: Design, Diffusion and Implications’. The conference was aimed at bridging the disconnected discourses on trade law and policy and data-driven innovation. With leading scholars on board and active engagement from stakeholders and policy-makers, the conference aimed at facilitating an unbiased, interdisciplinary and future-oriented discussion on the multiple societal implications of Big Data and on how global trade law should be shaped to appropriately address them. The conference featured sessions by Mira Burri, Rodrigo Polanco, Thomas Cottier, Sebastian Klotz, Manfred Elsig and Marta Soprana.

Discussions canvassed the relationship between trade and big data, focusing on the nature of relevant trade rules and their possible application towards data flows. While some scholars argued for the situation of rules on Big Data being situated in the World Trade Organization; others indicated that the WTO was ill-equipped to address the broad scope of data flows; and yet others were of the opinion that new rules should be negotiated and adopted to address this new challenge.

The Big Data Team has developed a database entitled “Trade Agreement Provisions on E-commerce and Data Flows” (TAPED) cataloguing trade agreement provisions on e-commerce and data flows. The database has collected and coded 291 preferential trade agreements (PTAs) - 98 of these have concrete e-commerce or data flow provisions. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has the most comprehensive provisions so far, but it would be surpassed by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) once signed. Currently, the treaty in force with more provisions on e-commerce and data flows than any other is the Pacific Alliance Protocol of 2014 after the amendments of 2016.

This mapping of the existing rules relevant for Big Data applications includes the creation of a comprehensive data collection, comprising norms in e-commerce, intellectual property as well as other norms through the agreements. The goal is to make this dataset available to the public as well as easily accessible and reusable for scientists and experts in the coming year. While the length and breadth of e-commerce chapters in PTAs has increased from 2000-2018, questions still abound regarding the future application and enforcement of their provisions.

Other issues including intellectual property regulation, data privacy and consumer rights were also discussed. The disconnect between the base concerns of some countries and the push towards the regulation of data flows was flagged as a concern, especially given the effects of globalisation and the need to engage in these conversations at an early stage in order to reap the greatest benefits.

Conference attendees included a variety of academics, policymakers, practitioners and civil society representatives with interests and expertise in political economy, economics, law and related disciplines. Many expressed their appreciation for a conversation of this nature, given that the linkages between data and trade are still under limited scrutiny. In particular, government officials indicated that the information gleaned from the sessions would assist them in pushing the agenda for data flows and their effective regulation in their home countries.

An edited volume will be produced from the papers presented at the conference.


Clarence Siziba is writing his PhD on the regulation of trade in goods originating in conflict zones in public international law.