Yesterday’s signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the first step in a still lengthy road to ratification for the controversial trade agreement, drew a warm reception from the local heads of tech companies IBM and Intel.
“The importance of the TPP, and particularly the support for cross-border data flows in the e-commerce chapter cannot be overestimated,” IBM Australia and New Zealand managing director, Kerry Purcell, said in a statement.
The e-commerce chapter commits parties to the TPP to a range of measures, including not imposing customs duties on “electronic transmissions”, non-discrimination provisions for digital products, accepting electronic signatures as valid, and online consumer protection measures.
The chapter also commits parties to allowing the cross-border flow of information by electronic means and to not requiring companies locate computing facilities within national borders as a condition of conducting business in a particular territory.
“The electronic delivery of services across borders is simply not possible without the ability to send and receive information over networks and so the protections provided in the TPP for e-commerce will now provide enormous opportunities for Australian businesses,” Purcell said.
“For example, IBM Australia provides cloud and cognitive services to a wide range of large and small companies — from major banks and airlines to start ups. All of these businesses need to move data across border quickly and efficiently in order to trade and grow.”
“The state of the art e-commerce provisions found in the TPP will promote a more liberal cross border environment for the flow and storage of data, while also ensuring appropriate consumer protections and retaining the right of governments to regulate in the public interest,” said the chief executive of the Australian Information Industry Association, Rob Fitzpatrick.
Intel’s A/NZ managing director, Kate Burleigh, cited intellectual property protections in the agreement as an important aspect of the TPP.
“The TPP is truly cutting edge in that it contemplates Australia’s digital future, which exists well beyond our borders,” Burleigh said.
“The TPP includes the necessary protections for our homegrown products and services that we export, including the intellectual property that surrounds it.”
The IP-related obligations for parties to the TPP have been one of the sources of controversy for the agreement.
The government has argued that the agreement won't require changes to existing Australian IP laws. However, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has called for a “comprehensive and robust” analysis of IP provisions in the TPP.
Telstra’s head of regulatory affairs, Jane van Beelen, said the company was “encouraged by the statement from the prime minister and [trade minister Andrew] Robb that the TPP will not require any changes to Australia's intellectual property laws or policies”.
“Intellectual property laws and policies that strike the right balance between rights holders and those looking to make use of new discoveries and innovations are a cornerstone of the digital economy,” Van Beelen said.
“We also welcome efforts to reduce behind-the-border regulatory barriers, which can be a significant problem for Telstra and many of our customers.”
The agreement has had a less-than-warm reception from consumer advocacy group, Choice.
In a statement the group noted a World Bank analysis that estimated the TPP would add only 0.7 per cent to Australia’s GDP by 2030.
“Fourteen years is a long time to wait to see such a small financial benefit given we'll now face legal challenges to our domestic laws,” Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey said.
Godfrey was referring to so-called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses in the TPP, which potentially allow corporations to sue foreign governments over certain trade disputes (in Australia the highest profile example is tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris suing the government over plain packaging legislation, using the ISDS provisions in bilateral trade agreement with Hong Kong)
“Aussies are in for a rough ride now the TPP has been signed,” the Choice spokesperson said.
“Not only will the financial benefit be minimal, we've given the power to US companies to sue us for making laws to protect our community.”
The government has said it is not likely Australia will be sued under TPP ISDS provisions.
The ACCC has also expressed concerns over the TPP agreement’s ISDS provisions, however.
“[S]uch provisions risk impeding domestic reforms in the public interest,” the competition watchdog said last year in a submission to a Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia’s IP regime.
“The ACCC supports an evaluation of the extent to which these provisions are consistent with ensuring Australia has sufficient scope to introduce IP law reforms that meet the evolving needs of consumers and the encouragement of disruptive, innovative technologies,” the submission said.
Shadow trade minister, Senator Penny Wong, said that Labor does not support the inclusion of ISDS provisions in the TPP.
"Labor will scrutinise the Trans-Pacific Partnership to ensure it delivers economic benefits without undermining Australian public policies in areas such as affordable medicines, environmental protection and balanced intellectual property laws," a statement issued by Wong said.