May 02, 2023

New Investigative Report from Senator Warren Reveals Big Tech’s Insider Influence on Digital Trade Rules

Newly Released Emails Reveal Big Tech’s Secret Communications with Biden Administration Trade Policymakers and Abuse of the Revolving Door “Big Tech’s unparalleled access to trade policymakers has serious implications for policy outcomes - including digital trade rules that could undermine efforts to enact commonsense tech regulation.”

Report – Big Tech’s Big Con: Rigging Digital Trade Rules to Block Antitrust Regulation (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – Ahead of the next round of negotiations on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a new 22-page investigative report: Big Tech’s Big Con: Rigging Digital Trade Rules to Block Antitrust Regulation. The investigation, based on a review of previously undisclosed emails, reveals that Big Tech is using its revolving door hires to gain backdoor access to key United States Trade Representative (USTR) and Commerce Department officials, undermining the Biden Administration’s promises to end rigged trade deals and protect workers, consumers, and the environment. 

Trade deals, including digital trade deals, have long been negotiated in secret. Corporate lobbyists have weighed in behind closed doors while the public and Congress are left out, producing trade rules that reward offshoring and sell out hardworking Americans. Over the past decade, Big Tech firms have used their insider access to heavily influence agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and secure binding rules that overwhelmingly favor their interests and hurt consumers, workers, and small businesses. Tech lobbyists are now trying to rig digital rules under negotiation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

“At this critical time, Big Tech is working to undermine the Biden trade and competition agenda and instead push trade negotiators to pre-empt domestic and international regulatory efforts, hiring dozens of former government officials and lobbyists to gain insider access to U.S. trade officials and influence trade negotiations – and this report contains new evidence of the extent to which they have been effective,” said the report.

The report contains findings from a previously undisclosed tranche of email communications between high-level U.S trade officials and Big Tech firms that point to Big Tech’s significant influence over USTR during the Biden Administration.

The report findings show that:

  • Big Tech’s revolving door hires continue to receive behind-the-scenes access to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and other top USTR officials. New emails reveal numerous examples of Big Tech getting special access, including a former Deputy USTR and Ambassador to the World Trade Organization Michael Punke, hired at Amazon, who in June 2021 was asked for his availability to meet with Ambassador Tai “in your personal capacity” to discuss “your time in Geneva and how you approached the job.” Follow-up emails indicated that substantive trade issues were discussed during the agenda planning for that meeting. 
  • Big Tech uses its special revolving door access to furtively push for rigged trade policies. The newly revealed emails provide numerous examples of Big Tech’s private communications with key U.S. trade officials – and those officials acting to address these special interest concerns.  
  • USTR is granting special insider status to Big Tech lobbyists during every step of IPEF negotiations.  The newly released emails show that USTR is actively seeking private guidance from Big Tech as it seeks to negotiate the IPEF – access that is generally not provided to the public.  

“The findings of this investigation show that despite taking significant steps to give labor and environmental interests a voice in trade negotiations, USTR and the Commerce Department are still providing a backdoor to Big Tech companies through the revolving door,” said the report. “Big Tech is using its influence to stymie transnational regulatory efforts and preempt further regulation at home and abroad through trade negotiations.”

In the report, Senator Warren offered four recommendations in order to address the ongoing corporate influence-peddling and ensure trade policymakers are working on behalf of the American people.

  1. USTR and the Commerce Department must reject the Big Tech digital trade agenda and ensure that any IPEF digital trade rules complement – rather than conflict with – policymakers’ efforts to promote competition in the digital economy, regulate AI, and protect online privacy.
  2. USTR should make IPEF texts public, eliminating the secrecy that Big Tech has used to furtively drive its agenda with key officials. 
  3. The Commerce Department and USTR should commit to transparency on all public engagement in order to combat Big Tech’s secret influence peddling, including visitor logs, public appearances, and informal modes of external engagement. 
  4. The Biden Administration and federal trade agencies should work to implement strong ethics reforms that will padlock the decades-long revolving door between large corporations and trade agencies, and Congress should pass Senator Warren’s Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, which has critical guardrails that would address these problems at the source by boosting transparency, strengthening ethics rules and enforcement, and fixing federal open records laws. 

“Americans deserve to know what trade negotiators are up to and that they are working in the public interest,” said the report.  “This report urges USTR and the Commerce Department to take these additional critical steps to ensure the Biden Administration lives up to its commitments to a worker-centered trade policy and a whole-of-government approach to promoting competition in the U.S. economy.”

Senator Warren has long pushed for trade policy that benefits American workers, not corporate interests:

  • On April 24, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led six of her colleagues in sending a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, reiterating concerns about the impact that including skewed digital trade rules in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) will have on the U.S. government’s ability to promote competition, regulate AI, and protect consumer and worker privacy.
  • On March 23, 2023, at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Warren questionedS. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai on the agency’s approach to digital trade policy in enforcement of existing rules and negotiation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
  • In October 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo underscoring the dangers of Big Tech’s digital trade agenda.
  • In August 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Rosa DeLauro sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, requesting that the agencies involved engage in robust consultation with Congress and outside stakeholders on the recently announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP), and urging them learn from the failures of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
  • In July 21, 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo raising questions about the revolving door between the Department of Commerce and Big Tech companies, and its potential impact on global digital trade rules.
  • On April 12, 2022, Senators Warren and Bob Casey sent letters to USTR Katherine Tai and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo regarding their plans to negotiate an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and how this new trade deal may impact U.S. workers. 
  • In April 2022, at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Warren secured a commitment from Ambassador Katherine Tai to bring a progressive, worker-centered approach to trade policy in her role as U.S. Trade Representative. 
  • In March 2022, Senator Warren sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo urging her to respond to the senator’s December 2021 letter seeking clarification about remarks the Secretary made in a statement to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce regarding regulation of big tech companies by the European Union (EU).
  • In December 2023, Senator Warren sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo expressing concern about remarks the Secretary made in a video statement to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about potential regulation of large tech companies by EU authorities.