Opportunities and Roadblocks Along the Electronic Silk Road

977574_288606077943048_524618202_oLast week, Foreign Affairs posted a note about my book, The Electronic Silk Road, on its Facebook page. In the comments, some clever wag asked, “Didn’t the FBI shut this down a few weeks ago?” In other venues as well, as I have shared portions of my book across the web, individuals across the world have written back, sometimes applauding and at other times challenging my claims. My writing itself has journed across the world–when I adapted part of a chapter as “How Censorship Hurts Chinese Internet Companies” for The Atlantic, the China Daily republished it. The Financial Times published its review of the book in both English and Chinese.

International trade was involved in even these posts. Much of this activity involved websites—from Facebook, to The Atlantic, and the Financial Times, each of them earning revenue in part from cross-border advertising (even the government-owned China Daily is apparently under pressure to increase advertising) . In the second quarter of 2013, for example, Facebook earned the majority of its revenues outside the United States–$995 million out of a total of $1,813 million, or 55 percent of revenues.

But this trade also brought communication—with ideas and critiques circulated around the world.  The old silk roads similarly were passages not only for goods, but knowledge. They helped shape our world, not only materially, but spiritually, just as the mix of commerce and communication on the Electronic Silk Road will reshape the world to come.

We can embrace these possibilities, or we can erect barriers to them, in the form of impediments to global trade in services. These impediments are the new non-tariff barriers, from buy local requirements for government procurement of services to mandates to not remove data outside a country’s borders. The recent disclosures of NSA spying have revived countries’ fears of data leaving home, and created an environment that might be used to justify protectionism against foreign service providers. Countries are often more afraid of a global market for services than eager to embrace the amazing opportunities such a global market allows.

I’m grateful to Danielle Citron and Deven Desai for hosting the symposium, and Paul Berman, Miriam Cherry, Graeme Dinwoodie, Nicklas Lundblad, Frank Pasquale, Pierluigi Perri, Adam Thierer, Haochen Sun, Fred Tung, Danielle and Deven for commenting on the book.  I couldn’t ask for a constellation of brighter stars to shine light on the subject.

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