Suggested citation: Jones, E., B. Kira, D. Garrido Alves, and A. Sands (2021) “The UK and Digital Trade: Which Way Forward?”

Working Paper BSG-WP-2021/038


The internet and digital technologies are upending global trade. Industries and supply chains are being transformed, and the movement of data across borders is now central to the operation of the global economy. Provisions in trade agreements address many aspects of the digital economy – from cross-border data flows, to the protection of citizens’ personal data, and the regulation of the internet and new technologies like artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision-making.

The UK government has identified digital trade as a priority in its Global Britain strategy and one of the main sources of economic growth to recover from the pandemic. It wants the UK to play a leading role in setting the international standards and regulations that govern the global digital economy. The regulation of digital trade is a fast-evolving and contentious issue, and the US, European Union (EU), and China have adopted different approaches.

Now that the UK has left the EU, it will need to navigate across multiple and often conflicting digital realms. The UK needs to decide which policy objectives it will prioritise, how to regulate the digital economy domestically, and how best to achieve its priorities when negotiating international trade agreements. There is an urgent need to develop a robust, evidence-based approach to the UK’s digital trade strategy that takes into account the perspectives of businesses, workers, and citizens, as well as the approaches of other countries in the global economy.

This working paper aims to inform UK policy debates by assessing the state of play in digital trade globally. The authors present a detailed analysis of five policy areas that are central to discussions on digital trade for the UK: cross-border data flows and privacy; internet access and content regulation; intellectual property and innovation; e-commerce (including trade facilitation and consumer protection); and taxation (customs duties on e-commerce and digital services taxes). In each of these areas the authors compare and contrast the approaches taken by the US, EU and China, discuss the public policy implications, and examine the choices facing the UK.