These three current events suggest that both enterprise customers and their service providers take a second look at their current practices for protecting trade secrets. At the end of this article, we offer a series of questions that need answers before any kind of outsourcing – indeed, any cross-border data flow — can take place. Such questions offer a basic refresher course, with “James Bond-compliant” updates, on challenges of trade secret protections in global operations.
I. The Current Context of Trade Secrets at Risk
Item #1: Bribery and Espionage in China (the Rio Tinto employee case). On March 28, 2010, China convicted a local sales employee of a British-Australian mining company named Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian citizen, and other Chinese-resident employees of Rio Tinto (but not Rio Tinto itself) of bribery and theft of trade secrets relating to price negotiations of iron ore for sale to Chinese state-owned companies. The trial was conducted largely in secret. Rio Tinto had previously rejected an investment offer from Chinalco that involved some Australian national security issues. Some analysts suggested the case was a political retaliation for that rejection and an abuse of judicial authority. Others suggested that the case leaves open the question of whether there was any rule of law or was this merely the use of judicial power to punish foreign business that used aggressive means of driving hard bargains. The case attracted global attention to the concept in Chinese law that identifies non-public commercial information of a Chinese state-owned enterprise as a “state secret.” Rio Tinto initially defended the employees but then said they had acted outside the scope of their operations and authority. The employees were convicted and sentenced to 7 to 14 years in prison plus financial penalties.
On March 25, 2010, China’s State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission issued regulations on commercial secrets, but did not disclose them until the Rio Tinto employee verdict. Those regulations remain somewhat vague, leaving foreign companies (and Chinese companies that are not state-owned enterprises, or “SOE’s”) to interpret them at their peril. See www.outsourcing-law.com/jurisdictions/countries/china.
Item #2: Anti-Terrorism and Cybercrimes under a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. On April 7, 2010, the U.S. and Algeria signed a mutual legal assistance treaty to combat international crime and terrorism. According to the press release:
The mutual legal assistance treaty, or MLAT, will be an effective tool in the investigation and prosecution of terrorism, cybercrime, white collar offenses and other crimes. Among other tools, the treaty will help law enforcement officials from the two countries obtain testimonies and statements; retrieve evidence, including bank and business records; provide information and records from governmental departments or agencies; and provide a means of inviting individuals to testify in a requesting country.
The U.S. has approximately 50 such MLAT’s. Such agreements could be used to enforce criminal prosecutions of misappropriation of trade secrets, assuming such misappropriation is a criminal act in the relevant jurisdictions. The press release announcing the MLAT did not link to any copy of the treaty, and the Justice Department website does not publish a copy either. Interested parties will need to do some further investigation then in how such a treaty might be used to enforce trade secret protections.
Item #3: Hiring Practices by Global Services Providers. Now, enterprise customers have to be worried about the legality of hiring practices – at least in the United States – of their outsourcing service providers. Since July 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating the hiring practices of Google, Intel, IBM, Apple and IAC/InterActiveCorp., according to the Wall Street Journal and other news reports in April 2010. The reports claim that the U.S. Government could challenge, or chill, the use of non-competition covenants in industries, such as high-tech, where innovation drives comparative advantage and non-competes might constitute illegal collusion on cost management, thereby depriving knowledge workers of a market for their skills. The investigation appears inspired by cases where innovators are hired away and the former employer seeks to enforce a non-competition covenant, particularly where the new employer claims that the litigation lacks a valid legal basis and thus is anticompetitive. (Such a case happened in 2005 when Google hired a Microsoft engineer in China, and Google claimed that Chinese law did not permit enforcement in China of a non-competition covenant). Enterprise customers should now be concerned with compliance by their service providers with antitrust concerns.
II. The Law of Trade Secrecy
All these recent events underscore the need for prudent trade secrecy practices in the global supply chain. Trade secrets are now at risk due to potential civil and criminal espionage, bribery, cybercrime, and antitrust prohibitions on abusive and illegal anticompetitive practices. Further, the area of trade secrecy is now engulfed in national security and public policy considerations, underscoring the importance of a stable political environment for assuring the predictability of legal rights and enforcement actions in the various jurisdictions where trade secrets are shared and used in an outsourcing business relationship.
Trade Secrets. It is a best practice in outsourcing contracts, to protect the enterprise customer’s trade secrets. The customer wants to know how this is done. Such protections can be applied to individual employees under non-disclosure agreements and maybe even non-competition covenants. NDA’s are generally enforceable but are generally construed in a manner to avoid depriving an employee (or service provider) of “general skill and knowledge” in the industry.
NDA’s are essential to enable any outsourcing, resourcing (retro sourcing back in-house) and transfer sourcing (to a new service provider on expiration or termination). As a matter of public policy under national laws, NDA’s are critical. The WTO protections of trade secrets are not very strong, based instead on non-secret intellectual property rights such as patents, trademarks and copyrights.
Non-Competition Covenants. Non-compete covenants are unenforceable in California as a matter of law and possibly in the BPO provider’s service delivery jurisdiction. Non-competes deprive employees of a right to be hired by competitors. They are unenforceable in some jurisdictions, and where enforceable they must be limited to reasonable scope in time, territory and subject matter. Employers can make the arguments, in an antitrust context, that non-competition covenants:
- are not anti-competitive in practice;
- do not deny employees the right to find work in non-competitive companies;
- are widespread across industries and countries; and
- are used by companies across many industries to maintain good business relationships by promoting exchanges of information across the full spectrum of personnel (not just through a narrow channel, like a chaperone of trade secrets), and as a result collaboration between technology-based companies is promoted by such practices.
An antitrust enforcer might argue that non-compete agreements distort access by skilled workers to mobility and job choice, thus depressing competition for skilled workers and depressing wages.
Risk Management: Knowing Your Service Provider’s Hiring Practices. Based on this antitrust activity, enterprise customers should investigate the employment practices of their service providers to understand clearly the contractual framework and legal enforceability of employment practices in the relevant jurisdictions. The legal framework for protecting trade secrets, or allowing them to be disclosed to the local government without judicial review with open adversarial procedure, should also be explored and fully appreciated. Thus, trade secrecy risks should be assessed in the selection of service providers, the scoping of the functions to be outsourced and the use of encryption and decryption before data transfers.
Compliance: Knowing Yourself and the Law. These recent events raise questions that compliance officers and legal departments, as well as product managers and CEO’s, should answer before any kind of outsourcing takes place:
1. What does the enterprise customer do today to identify and protect its trade secrets internally?
a. Identify types of non-public information from all sources that needs to be maintained as non-public.
i. Securities (risk of liability for securities fraud)
ii. Financial information (risk of loss of advantage in pricing negotiations; risk of
securities liability for failure to comply with Regulation FD or other “fair disclosure”
iii. Human capital information (governed by labor laws and privacy laws)
iv. Technical data, such as designs, processes, formulae, manufacturing techniques
(risk of loss of patent rights or loss of competitive advantage)
v. Marketing information (customer names and related business information relating
to the enterprise’s customer relationship)
vi. Sales information (the existence of RFP’s and the contents of offers and other
responses to RFP’s)
2. How much data does the enterprise need to have to accomplish its mission?
a. Avoid excessive collection and preservation of unencrypted
i. personally identifiable information (“PII”) of individuals in any business relationship.
ii. healthcare information.
iii. credit card information.
b. Avoid collection of non-public information from third parties who might be under a duty
of non-disclosure, or who cannot explain how they legitimately obtained the non-public
3. How does the enterprise ensure that it has the legal right to know the non-public information?
a. Obtain written confirmation from the disclosing party that it has the authority to make
b. Identify non-disclosure agreements and categorize the information so that it can be
accessed, stored, retained and destroyed in accordance with the non-disclosure
c. Limit access by persons having a legitimate “need to know.”
d. Use the non-public information only as necessary to perform a legal and permitted
e. Avoid use of bribery, coercion, theft and other illicit means of acquiring non-confidential
4. How does the enterprise identify and protect the trade secrets of third parties with whom it does business.
a. Identify source of non-public information.
b. Identify the duration of any holding period for non-public information under any
5. What measures does the enterprise take to train and audit its employees for compliance with trade secrecy policies?
6. Does the enterprise identify special duties and special risks.
a. Take special measures to identify, segregate and protect “commercial secrets” or “state
secrets” when dealing with a foreign state-owned enterprise (“SOE”)?
7. How are trade secret rights recognized and enforced under local law? Are such rights clearly protected, or must a company rely upon contract or criminal prosecution?
8. What are the best ways to protect trade secrets from a practical viewpoint?
a. Divide work flows or discrete functions across suppliers, countries and sources to avoid
having one person or supplier know too much.
b. Retain competitive information in-house.
c. Segregate sales and marketing functions from non-public information in internal technical,
financial and human resources departments.
9. What is the history of trade secret enforcement in the country?
a. Risk of inadvertent criminal liability, including vicarious liability of senior executives for
misdeeds of employees (See China’s Criminal Law, article 219).
b. Risk of investing in new products or services that cannot be exploited due to
c. Identify any history of data security breaches and remediation activities.
10. Does the enterprise customer’s country have a “mutual legal assistance treaty” or other agreement with the service provider’s country to prosecute “cyber-crime”, so that evidence can be exchanged and used in international abuses of trade secrets?
11. What policies, practices and contractual measures does the service provider take to protect trade secrets? Are such measures a violation of antitrust law and therefore unenforceable?