The free flow of information was, as IO has discussed, the guiding doctrine of US international communications policy from the 1940s – the era of news agencies and movies – to the late 2010s and internet-enabled transnational data flows.[1] 

In the face of growing restrictions placed on cross-border data flows by numerous other countries, however, the Biden Administration thereafter reduced the purchase of this foundational policy. Free flow continued to guide the US agenda, but for digital trade blocs:  alliances between the US and specific groups of other countries. The US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement and the US-Japan trade pact were leading examples; and the US sought to expand on these, notably through negotiations on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).

While still underlining its ostensible commitment to free cross-border flows in general, in February 2024, the Administration nevertheless moved to hedge this through an Executive Order portending restrictions on access to Americans’ “bulk-sensitive data” by “countries of concern.”[2] If the policy context had come to seem ambiguous in early 2024, however, then this was mostly because, paradoxically, in late October 2023 it had grown startlingly clear. This was when the United States Trade Representative (USTR) suddenly withdrew US support for free cross-border data flow provisions in both the ongoing IPEF and World Trade Organization negotiations – upending the prior US position.[3]

How could this happen? The US had been compelled to attenuate its longstanding free flow policy by virtue of its reduced global power or, put differently, because other countries had succeeded in mandating local storage of data and/or in imposing restrictions on international data flows. In response, the US had “shrunk” its policy to apply to digital trade blocs of allied countries – still collectively accounting for a large share of the global economy.  With the late October action, however, the Trade Representative sabotaged the very policy that the US had hitherto done its utmost to preserve, albeit with a reduced footprint. Why?