What does B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) have to do with international trade? One would expect that domestic laws that protect our information rights would have little to do with economic agreements, but deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are changing that.
The TPP—a multinational trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and ten other countries—has been negotiated largely in secret, but leaked texts have given the pro-privacy public cause for concern.
In TPP negotiations, the U.S. has prioritized the advancement of “digital free trade” – that is, the free movement of digital goods like software and digital media. The U.S. government has made a point of prioritizing the “rights” of companies to freely move data across borders, and pushing to eliminate national laws that require sensitive personal data to be stored within national borders.
The privacy laws of B.C. and Nova Scotia in particular have been identified as “foreign trade barriers” in a 2015 United States Trade Representative (USTR) report:
“These laws prevent public bodies such as primary and secondary schools, universities, hospitals, government-owned utilities, and public agencies from using U.S. services when personal information could be accessed from or stored in the United States,” it says.
In February of last year, FIPA obtained internal USTR documents through the American Freedom of Information Act, which showed that major U.S. companies have been in touch with the USTR’s office about our domestic data storage requirements.
It wouldn’t be the first time for the USTR, after all. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement included e-commerce provisions that pushed South Korea to eliminate its laws requiring financial data to be stored within the country.
Scott Sinclair—the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Trade and Investment Research Project—recently wrote an article in which he inferred that the Canadian government is likely to agree to the TPP’s problematic override of local laws. He cites the government’s stated support of the draft e-commerce chapter of another controversial negotiation called the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), which states that “no Party may prevent a service supplier of another Party from transferring, accessing, processing or storing information, including personal information, within or outside the Party’s territory”.
Further, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated that it is “essential” for Canada to be part of the TPP, even if that involves “difficult choices”.
So where are we now? The TPP negotiations have been very secretive, and the threat to Canadian privacy law has been underreported. Negotiating countries failed to reach an agreement at the most recent meeting in Maui, but the election-time guidelines of Canada’s Privy Council Office gives officials permission to continue negotiations in the lead-up to the vote on October 19th.
FIPA will continue to monitor the situation.