Some of the most important U.S. laws that govern global trade and the flow of information across borders are outdated. Not disrupted by cutting-edge tech that has come out in the last few years outdated, but enacted before Amazon was even a company outdated.
Leaders from Amazon and Microsoft as well as congressional representatives from Washington state gathered at Amazon HQ Monday for Washington Council on International Trade’s trade summit. In the same room where Amazon welcomes 500 new employees every week from around the world, speaker after speaker advocated committing to trade agreements and updating existing pacts, while acknowledging the complications of doing so to reflect today’s technology.
Global trade deals have become a popular scapegoat to explain why some communities and sectors have fallen behind in recent years. President Trump quickly withdrew the U.S. from a global trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, soon after his election and has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, the trade pact from the 1990s between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Trade policy has an outsized impact on Washington state, where industries from agriculture to aerospace rely heavily on exports. Complicating the matter is the explosion of technology, and the presence of some lawmakers who aren’t exactly experts in the field.
U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat who represents a broad district that includes Microsoft’s headquarters campus and large swaths of northern Washington, knows the tech world well. She is a former Microsoft executive who wants to see more tech-related legislation.
“It’s been a tough area because many legislators don’t understand a lot about digital technology — how it’s working; where it’s headed — not just with respect to trade but more generally,” DelBene said. “So people are hesitant to put policy in place, which is why we still don’t have a warrant standard for accessing information in your email that may be sitting in the cloud.”
The issue of warrants and email privacy are the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case with DelBene’s previous employer Microsoft battling the U.S. Department of Justice over data stored on a server in Ireland. Microsoft has continually called on Congress to pass laws governing searches of information stored abroad.
Regulating how data flows between borders was top of mind for tech leaders at the event as well. Amazon and Microsoft both have data centers all around the world to support their cloud computing divisions and governments they interact with run the gamut for how open or restrictive they are about data.
“While there is so much promise from this technology, it’s really the wild west in terms of how countries are dealing with the issues of underlying data flows around the world,” said Matthew Reisman, director of international trade for Microsoft. “You have some that are embracing new technology and these data flows and others who are afraid.”
David Roth, senior manager of global trade policy for Amazon, agreed, saying that trade policy has not kept up with technological advances. He hopes to see agreements that govern how data flows across borders and clarify the issues of whether data needs to be stored locally.
This event was meant to promote global trade with a lens on Washington state, so there weren’t any vehement isolationists on the panels or anyone advocating restrictive policies for data stored abroad. But U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, a democrat representing Tacoma as well as the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, advised the audience to think about why some have become anti-trade in recent years. Technological advances have contributed to factors that have left people behind, and not just in middle America, but in places within driving distance of Amazon and Microsoft HQ as well.
“What’s driving some of the protectionism by this administration, and what’s driving isolationist policies all around the world is the changing economy and the fact that people are being left behind,” Kilmer said. “I represent some counties that are really struggling that are not in the shadow of the Space Needle. In a lot of the counties I represent, the chief export is young people.”