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Espinel: Digital trade risks are growing

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Digital trade is one of the tech industry's policy priorities since Trump moved to pull the U.S. out of the TPP and to renegotiate NAFTA—two trade agreements tech generally supported because they included policies allowing data to cross borders freely.

We caught up with Victoria Espinel, former White House trade and IP advisor and current head of BSA, The Software Alliance (which represents companies like Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Salesforce) just before she hopped on a plane to Tokyo and Beijing to talk about this very issue. Here are excerpts from her conversation with Axios, edited for length.

On gaps in digital trade policy:

I see two broad categories of risk.
1. Some governments are actively working to put policies in place that would limit the ability of data to move across borders, or would mandate that companies have to build data centers within their borders in order to do business inside that country. We see those discussions happening in a number of countries in a number of ways...for example, Russia, China, some countries in Europe.
2. Right now there are no international rules on cross-border data flows. We have this incredibly important segment of the economy and there's no international consensus that says the right approach is to let data move across borders. That's a real gap in international legal framework. Governments are considering different approaches and, since there's no international baseline, things can change very quickly....and the risks grow bigger and bigger.
In the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the U.S. and others came together to start to set an international baseline for data policy and digital trade. Now that the future of the TPP is unclear, it would be a grave mistake for the U.S. [and others] to not immediately look for other mechanisms to move that conversation forward.

On what's missing in the conversation about artificial intelligence:

It's not surprising that the focus of the headlines so far is on the potential concerns related to AI, and we should be open-eyed about that. But we need to be just as focused on all the jobs that AI will create because it's going to give rise to whole new business sectors in the same way that software and the internet have. As AI pervades all sectors of the economy, how do we balance our approach so that we can use it for things like making us healthier and solving disease — by poring through vast troves of medical research that no human could?

On the tech industry's gender diversity problem:

Already we are a generation behind in training workers for the tech sectors In the 1980s, about a third of computer science students were women. Now it's 17 percent of computer scientists are female. We're moving backward.... One way [to improve] is to be very intentional about expanding the hiring pipeline and make sure that women are being supported through the process. Part of that is education and making sure girls are exposed to math and science and coding early and not made to feel that coding is not something that only boys are interested in.
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