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CES Speaker In Impassioned Call For Free Technology Trade

At CES, Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro slammed protectionism and called for Congress to pass embattled open-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and North Korea.
LAS VEGAS — Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) president Gary Shapiro unleashed Monday a cry for free trade so "passionate" that it stole some of the thunder from Panasonic chief executive Toshihiro Sakamoto, the keynote speaker he was introducing Monday at the opening session of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Sakamoto bounced back by unveiling the biggest TV on earth, but didn't entirely quiet the echoes of Shapiro's speech, in which the CEA chief said, among other things, "We are fighting for our future here. This is not just about free trade, technology and the ability to innovate. It's about our national soul. America is a great nation. A great nation does not erect walls. It engages in the world."

Shapiro called upon CES participants to join with the CEA in pressuring Congress to pass pending " but embattled " open-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and North Korea. He said, "We seek a separate treaty to remove all restrictions on technology products."

Shapiro said that the possible benefits of the Bush administration's tighter national security regime are increasingly overshadowed by the benefits that come from opening U.S. borders to the free exchange of technology and ideas, as well as welcoming "the best and brightest" minds from other nations. The CEA president went so far as to apologize to CES participants from overseas who might have been inconvenienced on route to Las Vegas by "discourtesies and an inhospitable visa process."

Praising a litany of U.S presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton (but pointedly overlooking current President George W. Bush) for "building our modern trade policy," Shapiro added, "International trade allows us to access products and ideas that we would otherwise not have."

Shapiro underscored his plea for free trade by projecting that consumer electronics internationally will grow in sales by six percent in 2008, reaching a total exceeding $170 billion. He noted that consumer electronics, which account for a fifth of the United States' total annual exports, are "America's largest export sector."

He cited a CEA survey showing that 69 percent of Americans "agree that free trade is important." But that consensus, Shapiro added, is threatened. "Free trade. Given the [political] climate today, it is not a given."

As the enemy, Shapiro identified "protectionists and isolationists," as well as "pundits, politicians and TV demagogues holding out protectionism as a solution to our economic problems."

He said, "I believe that our digital destiny is as inevitable as the discovery of America." But he added, "Never before have I been as concerned that some in our country might restrict our leadership toward that digital destiny." Shapiro said that a trend toward isolationism, which was common in the U.S. before World War II, is "dangerous and disturbing."

Against the forces of economic retrenchment, Shapiro said that free trade, especially in technology, represents America's best hope. "Technology has become the shining star of the new economy," said Shapiro. "We believe that our technologies improve the world."

He said that free trade in technology is "blind to religion, blind to sexual orientation, race, national origin, ethnicity It brings people together."

Shapiro added, "With so many little things pushing us apart, we must fight for the big things that bring us together."