Trade Pact Trails Technology Advances

There's a lot the GATT will - and won't - do

The U.S. media, in their endless attempts to cast dramas rather than report on issues, has succeeded in oversimplifying the newly-passed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. That's easy to do with a document that outweighs a full set of Funk & Wagnalls, but some of the agreement's nuances just don't boil down to the Democrats vs. Republicans charade - hence the decidedly incongruous bipartisan support it won as it sailed through Congress.

The agreement will:

  • Improve the climate for international trade, and upspike the economy - but in high-technology sectors, the spike won't register. The high-tech industry already has forged its own product agreements of sorts based on market forces.

  • Provoke a number of countries to pay attention to the same - albeit insufficient - environmental regulations U.S. industry has to balance with its bottom line. Again, high technology's endgain is incremental, since information technology companies, post-manufacturing stage, don't produce many polluting products.

  • Make some inroads toward curbing rampant intellectual property ripoffs - but only those with the tangible stamp of trademarks, copyrights and patents. So, the software industry will benefit from any global anti-piracy provisos, but the agreement won't do much at all with some of the thorny, unresolved property problems content providers face on global networks. That's more a function of patent laws that haven't kept up with technology benchmarks and world views than the sudden "globalization" of networks.

  • Open up the service industry, around which much of information technology business revolves, to the global market - though no one really "closed" the market in the first place; ask Beltway companies what percentage of their clients are international.

The agreement will not:

  • Resolve intellectual property issues - really, innovation issues - at the small-business level or, as mentioned, at the cyberspace level. Through the fixed 20-year patent -term limit, the biotechnology and academic research communities and independent inventors could lose big. Multinational corporations already have their own trade agreements and are rarely border-loyal.

  • Open up the Japanese market, including its federal information infrastructure market, or any other market in which Japanese firms, high-tech or otherwise, have established market share and dominance.

By and large, the information technology industry - at least, the non-manufacturing aspects of it - is already globalized, and was so before NAFTA or GATT.

The United States should not be swept up by the apparent comprehensiveness of the agreement, and be ready to retrench and re-evaluate some of is domestic, internal legal structures that have hindered U.S. competitiveness - patent laws, intellectual property. In many ways, GATT was a fait accompli, an attempt to catch up to where industry had already been, not where it is headed.

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