“Just as lawmakers warned, Big Tech is working behind closed doors to stack the deck in their favor and undermine President Biden’s competition agenda. This is not only deeply concerning, it’s a potential scandal showing how deep Big Tech’s tentacles are in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework negotiations and how far they are willing to go to undo this administration’s successes in promoting competition online,” said Kyle Morse, Deputy Executive Director of the Tech Oversight Project.
ICYMI: Bloomberg: Google, Amazon Lobbyists Helped US Shape New Indo-Pacific Trade Framework
Elizabeth Warren releases emails between USTR, big tech
Indo-Pacific Economic Framework could come out this year
By Emily Birnbaum and Leah Nylen on 5/2/23
US trade officials have solicited the advice of lobbyists for Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other major technology companies to help craft the new Indo-Pacific trade framework.
Officials with the US Trade Representative invited Amazon and Google lobbyists early last year to meet personally with Sarah Bianchi, the deputy trade representative, according to emails obtained by Senator Elizabeth Warren and shared with Bloomberg News.
That gave the companies insight into the confidential talks long before the public knew about the 14-nation economic initiative, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
“We wanted to speak with experts like yourself to get your thoughts and feedback on our Indo-Pacific Economic Framework strategy and to further discuss the digital element of the strategy,” an assistant to Bianchi wrote in an email to Google.
The emails were obtained by the advocacy group Demand Progress via a public-records request and shared with Warren’s office. Warren’s office issued a report on the ties between the big tech companies and USTR as advocates increasingly scrutinize corporate influence over digital trade policy.
The lobbyists had worked in the Trade Representative’s office.
Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the emails show that the Biden administration’s trade representatives are continuing to coordinate with large tech companies despite President Joe Biden’s promises to make workers and consumers a priority in setting trade policy.
“Big Tech companies and their army of lobbyists, including former government officials, are secretly trying to undermine President Biden’s trade policy and his committment to promote competition,” Warren said in a statement.
In a January 2022 email to Amazon, a USTR official requested multiple meetings between Bianchi and Michael Punke and Jennifer Prescott, members of Amazon’s government affairs team and former USTR officials, “to get to know them better.” Punke had been a deputy trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organization, while Prescott was an assistant trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources.
Bianchi’s staff emailed to set up an additional meeting with Amazon lobbyist Arrow Augerot, previously deputy assistant for congressional affairs at USTR, in February. And Bianchi’s staff in February contacted Google Cloud lobbyist Behnaz Kibria, another former USTR official, to request an “off-the-record” meeting to get “feedback” on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The trade talks are well underway, although the framework has not yet been released to the public. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is to meet with the Senate Finance Committee behind closed doors later on Tuesday to discuss the trade deal, according to a person familiar with the briefing.
Another round of talks is set to begin next week in Singapore. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the negotiations could produce results by the end of the year. The framework is intended to strengthen US trade relationships in the region and represents the most significant American economic engagement since Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. Participants include Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia.
Progressive lawmakers are concerned that language in the US proposal related to digital trade could undermine artificial intelligence, privacy and competition regulations. In an April 21 letter, Warren and lawmakers in both the House and Senate said the draft could “tie Congress’s and regulators’ hands,” citing how similar language in the US-Canada trade deal has emerged in debates about digital regulations under consideration in Canada.
Countries including Japan, South Korea and Australia have been leaders on regulation related to the tech giants.
The emails released by Warren’s office on Tuesday reveal close ties between current USTR officials and former officials who left to work at big tech companies. A USTR official in June 2021 asked for Punke’s availability to meet with Tai “in your personal capacity” to discuss “your time in Geneva and how you approached the job.”
In July 2021, Tai personally thanked Karan Bhatia, global head of public policy and government affairs for Google, for his “ability to be candid” in a private meeting.
They also show that USTR reached out to South Korean government officials about legislation intended to pare back the power of Apple Inc. and Google’s app stores.
Bhatia in August 2021 emailed Tai about Google’s concerns with the South Korean legislation, adding “we would be grateful for your attention to this issue and for raising those concerns with the Korean government.” Tai wrote back within a few days, agreeing to “touch base with my counterpart(s) in Seoul,” and promising to “make sure we and our teams are in touch with any insights we are able to glean.”
Amazon, Google and tech industry-backed groups like the Computer & Communications Industry Association have hired former USTR officials to work on trade policy. Jonathan McHale, a former deputy assistant US trade representative for ICT services and digital trade, was hired by CCIA in June 2022. The year before, McHale told Google lobbyists it would be “good to know what you think the best response would be” to issues that could arise in negotiations with Mexico.
Amazon communicates with officials across the government, said spokeswoman Julia Lawless. “Like many other American companies with significant domestic investments and job creation, we advocate on issues that are important to our customers and our sellers.”
CCIA didn’t comment on any communication with USTR, but President Matt Schruers said that that failing to address “the benefits of the digital economy in IPEF would be a lost opportunity.”
Google has “very publicly advocated for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to include strong digital trade provisions that ensure digital technologies are widely accessible, and that support privacy, security, and trust in cross-border data flows,” said spokesman José Castañeda.