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'Digital Sovereignty must be at core of Pacific E-Commerce Strategy'

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The Pacific Regional E-Commerce Strategy needs to be revised as it denies Pacific Island Countries (PICs) their sovereign right to manage their digital domains, including data, a new report has found.

Launched in Suva today, the report, Re-thinking the Pacific’s E-commerce Strategy: Putting Cooperation, Digital Sovereignty and Development at the Core by Dr Jane Kelsey, Professor Emeritus at the University of Auckland, in Aotearoa New Zealand also recommended that Pacific islands nations should not enter into coercive trade agreements, which impact on nations’ digital sovereignty, and renegotiate those that already do, such as PACER Plus.

"Regional strategies are needed to address the challenges of scale and interoperability, encourage common standards, and share technologies and infrastructure. They must also be holistic enough to serve countries’ social, cultural, development, economic and democratic priorities, and avoid giving priority to commerce over these broader considerations. They must also be robust enough to withstand the mounting geopolitical turbulence in the region and around digital and data regimes," Dr Kelsey said.

In this internet age, there is growing recognition that countries must have sovereignty over their own digital data and to manage how their data and digital assets are treated.

In August 2021, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat published a Regional E-Commerce Strategy and Roadmap for Pacific Islands Countries, sponsored by the Australian Aid Program. ThatStrategy promised that e-commerce will be a "game-changer" for Pacific Islands Countries to achieve "unprecedented levels of inclusive, sustainable development in a post-COVID-19 BluePacific" - despite acknowledging that the previous magic bullet, trade liberalisation, failed to achieve the promised integration of the Islands’ economies into global value chains.

Dr Kelsey’s report reviewed a number of the Pacific E-commerce Strategy’s proposals from a development perspective. Her review identified alternative approaches and initiatives that can enhance digital sovereignty among the PICs and provide a more sustainable and equitable digital development strategy for the nations of the Pacific region.

"Digital sovereignty should be top of the agenda in the Paciific, because that is the only way to fight digital colonialism," Pacific Network on Globalisation Campaigner, Adam Wolfenden said. "PacificIsland Countries should store their own data in their own countries or regionally, so they can control it, especially in this digital age when cybersecurity is a threat."

National and regional digital strategies for the Pacific, including for e-commerce, need to minimise the risks of capture, exploitation and deeper dependency on dominant tech companies and donor states, and explore innovative and appropriate alternatives that maximise regional integration and control by drawing on initiatives underway in the Global South.

"Pacific governments must be able to protect their sovereign right and responsibility to regulate the

digital domain. This involves undertaking a scoping study to better examine the digital development needs of the Pacific and moving out of the constraints of a narrow trade focus that currently serves dominant players in the digital sphere t," concluded Mr Wolfenden.

The report made a number of recommendations, which are:

1. The Pacific E-commerce Strategy and Roadmap and Pacific Aid for Trade Strategy 2020-2025 need to be revisited to form part of a holistic digital development strategy that reflects values espoused in the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. There should be particular focus on measures relating to data, marketplaces, and fintech that balance their economic, social, cultural, commercial and political dimensions.

2. A revised strategy that delivers the needs of Pacific peoples, communities and governments needs to be informed by principles of cooperation and relationships with other developing countries and, where appropriate, triangular South-South-Northrelationships, and not reinforce dependencies on foreign technology corporations, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon or AliBaba, or on developed country donors and institutions.

3. E-commerce must be reconceived outside the narrow lens of trade rules, which are utterly inappropriate for a development and values-based digital strategy. The decisions that Pacifica Island Countries make on participating in trade negotiations must be informed by robust analyses of the potential impacts of digital trade rules on their development and their sovereignty, recognising that the more of those rules they adopt, the more constraints will be placed on their options and the more difficult it will be to remedy problems and failures when they occur.

4. Competing superpowers of the US, and its allies, and China must refrain from pressuring Pacific Islands Countries to adopt the digital regimes of one or the other. Control over the location and use of data, the choice of digital technologies, the nationality of service and technology providers, and the approach to regulation are crucial to maximising the independence of Pacific nations. They must not be fettered by conflicting obligations that are not in their interests, including through trade agreements or arrangements that are designed according to the model of one superpower or the other.

5. A revised digital development strategy needs to establish control over data as a priority and a means for asserting and implementing regional data sovereignty. Consistent with the South-South cooperation approach, this should draw on experiences from other developing countries, such as India and Rwanda, and could seek donor support from a developed country like Switzerland to examine the merits its model of integrated data spaces in areas like transport or energy.

6. Regulatory cooperation should draw on experiences from countries and regions in the global South that have more advanced digital regimes, including the ASEAN and the AfricanUnion regions. Although the precautionary objective of the regulatory sandbox is prudent, and its regional basis could be helpful to small island states with limited regulatory capacity, it will not capture the more dangerous financial innovations that actively bypass regulatory oversight. Nor will it assess the risks associated with dependency on existing platforms, marketplaces, payment systems that are controlled by dominant technology transnationals like Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, and Facebook. More may be gained by investing that research capacity and resources into collaborative research on those products, technologies and services underway in other developing countries.

7. Australia, New Zealand and the EU need to stop pressing their agendas onto PacificIsland Countries through their aid funding, appointment of consultants, training programs for trade officials, and pressure to adopt trade rules that are designed by and for the economic and commercial interests. If donors genuinely have Pacific Island Countries’development interests at heart they should provide no-strings funding to support a genuine digital development strategy, including cooperation and partnership arrangements with other developing countries with whom they can collaborate.

8. Digital-related commitments by Pacific Island Countries in PACER-Plus need to be suspended and revised. Australia and New Zealand need to set aside the sweeping trade in services obligations that Pacific Island Countries adopted in PACER Plus at a time when the implications of digitalisation could not reasonably have been understood. If Pacific IslandCountries want to act according to those commitments because they believe it will benefit them, they should be free to do so without the threat of a dispute. Equally, they should be free to choose a different path.

9. Develop a regional digital governance and implementation mechanism that is independent of the PIFS, starting with a regional digital ministers’ committee. The broader digital development strategy, including the e-commerce element, should be overseen by a new group of Forum Island Country Ministers and officials that operates independently of donors and their influence, and replaces the current structure of Trade Ministers, trade officials in the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, and private sector and donor sub-committees.

10. Launch a scoping study to examine options for a holistic digital development strategy that is based on Pacific needs, values and aspirations. The study should draw on lessons and experiences from developing countries that are more advanced in addressing these challenges and examine the potential South-South and South-South-North partnerships to share technologies, knowledge, regulatory models, innovations and training. A relational cooperative model based on Pacific values, in place of a market model supported by coercive trade rules, offers the Pacific region a much so under foundation for the 21st century than the current Pacific E-commerce Strategy.

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