ALTHOUGH trade in goods and services is sluggish, international flows of data are exploding. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, a think-tank within a consultancy, data zipped across borders at a rate of 211 terabits per second in 2014. That is equivalent to 1.3 Libraries of Congress per second, and 45 times more than in 2005. McKinsey reckons that this torrent contributed more to global growth in 2014 than trade in goods.

The data deluge is changing trade in three main ways. First, it is spurring conventional trade in goods and services, through orders on internet platforms like Amazon and eBay. Second, a growing share of the products being traded is digital, from music files to insurance policies. And third, data are increasingly important lubricants for global supply chains. Companies ship vast datasets around the globe, using them to improve the efficiency of their operations.

Yet quantifying and valuing these flows is difficult. The McKinsey study yields impressive numbers, but relies on rough measures, which are valued using statistical correlations rather than precise measurements. Experts agree that data flows are growing at an...Continue reading