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Author: Fred Tung

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Neutrality or Nirvana?

Trade law should not allow countries to insist on a regulatory nirvana in cyberspace unmatched in real space.

Reading Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road has been a real treat, and thanks to the folks at Concurring Opinions for organizing this terrific online symposium and including me. The book offers a wide-ranging and insightful discussion about global electronic commerce and its regulation and management. Anupam proposes general principles—rules of the road, essentially—to guide policymakers in this process of regulating and managing global e-commerce. The very first principle introduced in the book–the quotation above captures its essence–is that of technological neutrality: To keep cybertrade free and open, the online provision of a service should not be subject to more onerous regulatory burdens than its offline counterpart.

I wish to focus on this first principle. It seems a balanced and uncontroversial prescription. Why should local regulators saddle online service providers with heavier regulatory burdens than the local bricks-and-mortar competitors? The specter of protectionism lurks!

For me, Anupam’s technological neutrality principle is insufficiently ambitious with respect to the possibilities for effective regulation of e-commerce. Anupam’s concerns are free trade concerns, with which I am sympathetic. At the same time, though, e-commerce may actually be able to do better than brick and mortar on a number of important regulatory fronts, but technological neutrality gives up on those possibilities. It relieves the pressure to pursue more efficient regulation in cyberspace.

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