University of Miami Law Review


Countries spend billions of dollars each year to strengthen their discursive power to shape international policy debates. They do so because in public policy conversations labels and narratives matter enormously. The “digital protectionism” label has been used in the last decade as a tool to gain the policy upper hand in digital trade policy debates about cross-border flows of personal and other data. Using the Foucauldian framework of discourse analysis, this Article brings a unique perspective on this topic. The Article makes two central arguments. First, the Article argues that the term “protectionism” is not endowed with an inherent meaning but is socially constructed by the power of discourse used in international negotiations, and in the interpretation and application of international trade policy and rules. In other words, there are as many definitions of “(digital) protectionism” as there are discourses. The U.S. and E.U . “digital trade” discourses illustrate this point. Using the same term, those trading partners advance utterly different discourses and agendas: an economic discourse with economic efficiency as the main benchmark (United States), and a more multidisciplinary discourse where both economic efficiency and protection of fundamental rights are equally important (European Union). Second, based on a detailed evaluation of the economic “digital trade” discourse, the Article contends that the coining of the term “digital protectionism” to refer to domestic information governance policies not yet fully covered by trade law disciplines is not a logical step to respond to objectively changing circumstances, but rather a product of that discourse, which is coming to dominate U.S.-led international trade negotiations. The Article demonstrates how this redefinition of “protectionism” has already resulted in the adoption of international trade rules in recent trade agreements further restricting domestic autonomy to protect the rights to privacy and the protection of personal data. The Article suggests that the distinction between privacy and personal data protection and protectionism is a moral question, not a question of economic efficiency. Therefore, when a policy conversation, such as the one on cross-border data flows, involves non-economic spill-over effects to individual rights, such conversation should not be confined within the straightjacket of trade economics, but rather placed in a broader normative perspective. Finally, the Article argues that, in conducting recently restarted multilateral negotiations on electronic commerce at the World Trade Organization, countries should rethink the goals of international trade for the twenty-first century. Such goals should determine and define the discourse, not the other way around. The discussion should not be about what “protectionism” means but about how far domestic regimes are willing to let trade rules interfere in their autonomy to protect their societal, cultural, and political values.