Opinion: Op-Eds

Time for Russia to join 21st century on openness, human rights

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Op-Eds,Russia,Freedom of Speech,Freedom of Religion,Freedom of Assembly,Freedom of Petition,India,FOIA

Involvement of the Russian Federation in Syria and its recently enacted, extraordinarily backward domestic social legislation have drawn a lot of attention to our former Cold War foe.

While Russia’s actions in foreign and domestic policy have gained well-deserved and sharp criticism, one significant event for the technology industry eked by recently with barely a notice.

On September 13, the World Trade Organization announced that Russia has acceded to its Information Technology Agreement, becoming the 78th member.

The World Trade Organization’s ITA represents roughly 97 percent of world exports in information technology products, and binds all 78 participating countries to eliminate their tariffs on covered goods.

In Russia, the average tariff on IT goods is 5.4 percent; so eliminating this tariff will be a significant cost reduction to its consumers and global manufacturers.

At the same time, Russia’s annual IT spending is expected to grow to nearly $39 billion by 2016, up from roughly $22 billion in 2012.

The market for computer hardware is projected to grow by an additional 12 percent annually over the next five years, with annual spending on personal computers expected to reach more than $17.6 billion by 2016.

Russia’s decision to join the ITA was not a magnanimous one. Their accession was required under the agreement with the U.S. and other nations for its WTO accession last year.

However, it is notable that the Russian government has followed through on its obligations to the international community. I hope that Russia, despite its authoritarian leadership, will now muster the integrity needed to continue to play a constructive role in the efforts to expand the product coverage of the ITA.

The ITA has spurred research and development of new products and technologies, improved the productivity of traditional tech businesses and helped create entirely new tech industry sectors, like e-commerce.

Moreover, the ITA has helped create tens of thousands of jobs globally and reduce poverty in the developing world. For the ITA to continue to support global trade, productivity and innovation, it must expand the list of products it covers.

Specifically, it should include new IT goods that have entered the market since the ITA was first negotiated in 1997. Studies indicate that updating the ITA’s product list would boost global GDP by $190 billion and increase global demand for ICT products by an estimated $28 billion.

Whether they like it or not, the negotiations to expand the ITA are a test of Russia’s leadership on the global stage. Russia, like the other BRIC countries – Brazil, India and China – has more to gain from the successful completion of a robust expansion of the ITA than the U.S. or European markets.

So far, China has failed to fill the leadership void, despite having the most to gain of any participating country. Perhaps Russia can step up to help see the negotiations to completion.

Of course, Russia’s place on the global stage is complicated by its international and domestic politics. Russia’s role in Syria’s civil war can hardly be considered noble.

After all, President Vladimir Putin has, according to many accounts, supplied Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad with the chemical weapons that were used on his own people. Now Russia is apparently committed to disarming their friend and ally of those weapons.

Russia also has a hostile domestic record, especially when it comes to Internet freedom and human rights. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Putin has overseen the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The recent and widely publicized Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses is Russia’s latest censorship law, which may broadly punish individuals engaging in “propaganda” judged harmful to children.

The law’s broad powers could deny the rights of thousands. The Human Rights Watch 2012 annual report stated, “Russia’s cooperation with international institutions on human rights appears perfunctory,” and that “several positive developments pertaining to freedom of expression were offset by detrimental legislative initiatives in other areas.”

While Russia’s accession to the ITA may seem ironic, it is a net positive. Granted, we should be skeptical of any position the Russian Federation takes.

But the country’s entry into the ITA will offer economic benefits, giving its citizens wider access to information. The devices covered by the ITA are harbingers of human rights.

IT devices bring people together and help us to connect. They communicate news and help activists to engage. They break down barriers – they don’t put them up.

We can hope that when negotiators next meet in Geneva to discuss expanding the agreement, Russia will take its place at the table.

Step up, Mr. Putin. Try to show us a little Russian exceptionalism.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.
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