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E-commerce: will compromise be possible at the WTO Ministerial in Buenos Aires?

Published on 25 October 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

The 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will take place in December, in Buenos Aires. As discussed in a previous blog post, one of the main topics under consideration in preparation for MC11 is e-commerce. While some member states feel that the time has come to start negotiations towards a new agreement on this issue, other members believe that exploratory discussions should continue under the WTO Work Programme on electronic commerce, approved in 1998. Regardless of these differences, at the end of September, member states had already put forward 18 papers that expressed their positions on e-commerce, showing that this will inevitably be one of the key topics under discussion at MC11.    




Cards on the table

During the month of October, discussions on e-commerce intensified. Several contributions were presented with the aim to express members’ positions or to propose draft recommendations that should be considered at the next ministerial. On 6 October, the paper JOB/GC/132/Rev.3 was circulated upon Singapore’s request and endorsed by more than 15 countries from several regions, including Canada, China, Colombia and Switzerland. The document points out some process-related reasons why discussions on e-commerce have made little progress since the approval of the Work Programme, especially the compartmentalisation of discussions in several committees – on goods, services, intellectual property and development – failing to take into account the interlinked and transversal nature of issues related to e-commerce. The document urges ministers at MC11 to set out an updated framework or process through which future work could be undertaken, and to find issues of common concern in which governments could collaborate, putting development at the centre.

One of the proposals to enhance discussions on e-commerce is the creation of a working group (WG) on e-commerce. This suggestion appears in several contributions by member states, however, the mandate of this body greatly varies. According to Russia (JOB/GC/137), the WG should ensure efficient continuation of the work on e-commerce and provide members with the appropriate forum for discussions on e-commerce issues, including the possibility of developing international rules. Similarly, for Japan, China and other countries that have endorsed the document JOB/GC/138, the WG should conduct an evaluation of whether the clarification or strengthening of the existing WTO rules is necessary. Based on the results of this evaluation, member states could decide to start negotiations on e-commerce in 2019.

A different position was put forward by Australia, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Korea, Norway and Paraguay (JOB/GC/140), who argued that a working party should be created with the aim to conduct preparations and start negotiations on e-commerce. The working party would start its work in the first trimester of 2018.

JOB/CG/139, put forth by Costa Rica, endorses the creation of a working group, but focuses on the establishment of an ‘E-Commerce for Development Agenda’, which would be an integral part of the Work Programme on e-commerce. This would encompass an assessment of the needs of developing countries in relation to e-commerce, their challenges and priorities, under a joint effort put in place by UN agencies, such as the WTO, UNCTAD and the ITC, together with the World Bank. The document suggests that the E-commerce for Development Agenda should focus on six areas:

  • ICT infrastructure and services, with the aim to apply trade policy to help reduce the digital divide.
  • Trade logistics, focused on achieving trade facilitation in developing countries and LDCs.

  • Payment solutions, in order to facilitate mobile and international payment services and financial inclusion. 

  • Legal and regulatory frameworks that could promote an e-commerce enabling environment
  • E-commerce skills development and technical assistance, aiming to improve e-commerce readiness with a particular focus on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
  • Access to finance for e-commerce, especially for MSMEs and LDCs. 

China also suggested that some substantive points, which could be capable of gathering support from member states, should be discussed at MC11 and guide the work beyond (JOB/GC/142). Among the topics selected by China are: the sharing of good practices on trade facilitation by member states (such as the creation of free zones and customs warehouses), the promotion of paperless trading and the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, a more coordinated approach on electronic signatures, authentication and contracts, measures to increase transparency and to foster development and co-operation.

Will the dialectics reach a synthesis?

Divergent views were advanced by the African Group (JOB/GC/144), in a paper tabled by Rwanda which commented on several proposals previously advanced by other member states. The African countries expressed their willingness to continue discussions under the framework of the Work Programme on e-commerce, but did not agree to go beyond the current structure or institutional arrangements. Since substantive disagreements still persist on several issues, the creation of a new structure, such as a working group, would not contribute to solving divergences.

According to the African Group ‘it is perplexing that some members are advocating for new multilateral rules on e-commerce’. They opine that the existing WTO agreements constrain domestic policy space and ability to industrialise, and that ‘new rules would only entrench existing imbalances and further constrain the ability of our governments to implement industrial policy and catch-up’. The document questions the assumption that ‘multilateral rules on e-commerce will leapfrog development through the power of MSMEs’, but argues that the beneficiaries of e-commerce discussions will be multinational corporations who have become global digital leaders.

The contribution also remarked that many submissions by member states include international Internet public policy issues, which have been discussed at length by other international organisations and should be resolved by these international organisations, not the WTO.

When it comes to placing emphasis on the developmental aspects of e-commerce, the African Group argues that development is already an integral part of the Work Programme on e-commerce and that a specific ‘e-commerce for development agenda’ would not be needed. The proposed emphasis on development would actually weaken the already existing development agenda contained in the Work Programme.

Many of the points raised by the African Group are also present in a letter signed by more than 300 civil society organisations that calls on the WTO to refrain from adopting a negotiating agenda for e-commerce. The document argues that new rules would benefit large global companies at the expense of the public interest and that digital policy issues should be discussed in other forums. Nevertheless, civil society also presents diverse opinions, and the content of the letter was criticised, while emphasising the positive impact of digital trade liberalisation and free flows to consumers, human rights and global communications.  

Next steps?

With the clock ticking fast and polarised views on the table, it seems unlikely that a negotiating mandate on e-commerce will be approved at MC11. However, perhaps the journey is more important than the destination at the moment: e-commerce discussions have given member states the opportunity to reach a better understanding of each other’s positions and frustrations and to question the remit of international organisations (and the need for synergy and collaboration among them) in the increasingly interlinked digital and trade policy spaces.

For updates on e-commerce discussion follow the Digital Watch Observatory.

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