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Digital policy at WTO Public Forum: Summarising Day 1

Published on 27 September 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘Trade: Behind the headlines’ is the theme of this year’s World Trade Organization (WTO) Public Forum. Taking place this week in Geneva, it is bringing together policy makers, civil society and business representatives, and researchers, to discuss the opportunities and challenges of trade, and to look at recent developments in the area. They will also explore solutions for a more inclusive global trade system.

Several sessions included in the programme of the three-day forum touch on digital policy issues, and DiploFoundation and the Geneva Internet Platform are reporting from those. Below is a summary of Day 1. Visit dig.watch/wto-public-forum-2017 to read the reports from the first day.

The first day started with discussions on the benefits and challenges of trade and trade policies. While trade is important for growth and development, its benefits are not equally distributed around the world (opening plenary), especially when it comes to marginalised communities (session 14). People in different countries have different perceptions as to whether trade creates jobs and wages; inadequate working conditions, outsourced jobs, and a backlash against globalisation and trade are some of the causes of negative views regarding the benefits of trade.

To ensure that trade can indeed contribute to reducing poverty, improving human wellbeing, and promoting development, policies are needed in multiple areas: addressing the gender gap and providing equal working opportunities to men and women, eliminating disparities in the rural areas, tackling poverty in conflict areas, and, generally, including those who are excluded. While concerns related to the challenges of globalisation persist, many believe that protectionist policies are not a solution.

As trade leads to cross-border competition, it risks harming the welfare of workers (session 14). Reconciling trade and labour sectors is therefore important, especially with a view to ensuring decent work. Conditions for decent work cannot be established in isolation, and need to be part of a holistic effort encompassing trade, growth, and infrastructure. Information and communications technologies, e-commerce, and other new ways of providing services bring advantages to workers, but also challenges.

Countries need to implement mechanisms and policies to adapt their workforce to new skills requirements, and lifelong education programmes and policies to help people change jobs are a good example in this regard.

E-commerce and digital trade are an opportunity for developing countries, as they widen market access beyond national borders (thus facilitating international trade), and they lower the market entering threshold by reducing initial investments and trade costs (session 31). Through e-commerce, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have a chance to leap forward in terms of economic growth, and to benefit from the same services and have the same exposure as multinational companies. But SMEs still face obstacles in taking full advantage of these opportunities, ranging from scattered information about e-commerce conditions, to cumbersome exporting systems, and challenges in complying with safety, privacy, and payment norms. Policies to support SMEs are therefore needed, and they can include, for example, the creation of sandboxes where businesses can test product placements and pricing before moving to platforms with very strict rules (session 28).

E-commerce is an integral part of the digital economy, and it cannot exist without proper infrastructures, services, and platforms in place. Bridging the digital divide within and between countries, enhancing Internet access, and promoting digital inclusion are key elements that can help boost e-commerce. Tackling issues related to data localisation policies and restrictions to data flows, which are seen by many as acting as barriers to digital trade, is also important.

Ensuring adequate protection of consumer rights can significantly contribute to the growth of e-commerce. Privacy and safety concerns, poor product quality, issues in the delivery of goods, and problems in resolving disputes are all generating lack of trust among consumers.

Governments have an important role to play in implementing and enforcing consumer protection rules. But the enforcement becomes complicated in the context of cross-border e-commerce, as there are discrepancies in rules and regulations between countries and regions. These create confusion and uncertainties among users, while bringing additional difficulties to e-commerce providers. International organisations can play a role here, by setting up institutions and guidelines to implement consumer protection, while engaging civil society and the private sector in the process (session 29).

When it comes to e-commerce in the context of international negotiations, and especially in the WTO framework, different countries and regions have different views on whether e-commerce should be subject to dedicated rules, and what such rules could look like. For some countries, the WTO should not open up negotiations on e-commerce until the Doha Round is completed (session 29). Others call for such discussions much sooner, at the December 2017 WTO Ministerial Meeting.

On matters of substance, some countries defend free trade and an open Internet, while at the same time adopting national security policies that could act as a barrier to trade. Other countries are in favour of economic nationalism, while yet others place importance on issues such as privacy and data protection in the context of data flows. Finding commonalities and convergences among these different views is crucial for the development of long lasting regional and multilateral agreements (session 28).

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