What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Digital Protectionism?

December 2018

Susan Ariel Aaronson

IIEP Working Paper 2018-13

Abstract: For almost a decade, executives, scholars, and trade diplomats have argued that filtering, censorship, localization requirements, and domestic regulations are distorting the cross-border information flows that underpin the internet. Herein I use process tracing to examine the state and implications of digital protectionism. I make five points: First, I note that digital protectionism differs from protectionism of goods and other services. Information is intangible, highly tradable, and some information is a public good. Secondly, I argue that it will not be easy to set international rules to limit digital protectionism without shared norms and definitions. Thirdly, the US, EU, and Canada have labeled other countries policies’ protectionist, yet their arguments and actions sometimes appear hypocritical. Fourth, I discuss the challenge of Chinese failure to follow key internet governance norms. China allegedly has used a wide range of cyber strategies, including distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks (bombarding a web site with service requests) to censor information flows and impede online market access beyond its borders. WTO members have yet to discuss this issue and the threat it poses to trade norms and rules. Finally, I note that digital protectionism may be self-defeating. I then draw conclusions and make policy recommendations.

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