An UNCTAD report published today, entitled Review of E-commerce Legislation Harmonization in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, documents the significant advances made by ASEAN countries in the area of e-commerce laws. It also makes proposals for accelerating the process of regional integration and harmonization as outlined in the ASEAN ICT Masterplan 2015.
Electronic commerce is seen as a key component for ASEAN to realize its vision of a regionally integrated economy. Having a single market will enable ASEAN member States to take advantage of rapid economic development within the region and in neighbouring countries.
ASEAN was the first region in the developing world to adopt a harmonized legal framework for e-commerce. Ten years later, it is the most advanced developing region in terms of implementing harmonized e-commerce laws.
The report notes, however, that the approach taken by countries has been to refer to international instruments without establishing binding e-commerce laws for the whole region. In a region as diverse as Southeast Asia, the harmonization process has focused on achieving predictability in the use of e-commerce.
Progress has been the strongest in regard to electronic transactions and cybercrime, the review indicates. Nine and eight - respectively - of the ten member countries now have relevant legislation in place in these two areas. The laws are generally aligned with international standards, such as the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) texts on e-commerce, and the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime.
With regard to data protection/privacy laws, there has been much progress in ASEAN, although there is scope for harmonization. Three countries (Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore) have passed privacy legislation, and Indonesia and Viet Nam have partial privacy legislation in place, while Brunei Darussalam and Thailand are discussing draft legislation.
Countries in the region are looking at cloud computing as a means of taking advantage of the evolving information economy. Greater reliance on cloud services adds urgency to the issues of data protection and data security, the report says. ASEAN countries recognize the need to achieve a balance between risks to privacy and cybersecurity on the one hand, and cloud computing opportunities on the other. While Singapore already has a range of policy, investment and tax initiatives in place to ease the adoption of cloud services in the country, other ASEAN countries are moving more slowly towards the cloud.
Consumer protection laws are also covered in the review. Progress to date on appropriate consumer protection legislation for online transactions in the region is mixed, the review says. Six out of 10 countries already have legislation in place. Two have partial laws (Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia). The Lao People's Democratic Republic has draft laws, and Cambodia has yet to commence work in this area.
The barriers to an effective harmonized e-commerce legal framework include a lack of capacity-building on legal issues surrounding e-commerce, among policymakers and users; a lack of coordination between the different ministries involved in e-commerce; a lack of coordination at the regional level on the design and implementation of relevant legislation; and a lack of strong enforcement institutions.
ASEAN e-commerce harmonization efforts will continue even after the 2015 target date is reached, the report notes. UNCTAD's recommendations in the review are intended to serve as a basis for consideration by ASEAN of the next steps to take.
Among these recommendations:
An ASEAN roadmap for e-commerce should be commissioned, and a multi-year project set up to tie together regional, bilateral and national activities in one coordinated package. This approach would help individual member States as well as the ASEAN secretariat to monitor progress against the 2015 targets for e-commerce.
Steps should be taken to build the capacities of policymakers and users in relevant areas of e-commerce, especially to address cybersecurity concerns and to build trust among potential consumers.
A common training and resource facility on e-commerce should be established, and 24/7 national contact points should be set up to enforce laws prohibiting cross-border cybercrime.
The handling of cross-border consumer complaints should be harmonized - a step that will require an agreement between national consumer protection regulators, complemented by appropriate investigation and referral tools.
ASEAN member States should consider becoming participants in the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (to date, only the Philippines and Viet Nam are members).
An ASEAN mutual recognition agreement should be developed, which would detail minimum acceptable standards for electronic signatures and related "trust" services to facilitate cross-border e-commerce.
About UNCTAD's work on e-commerce
UNCTAD has long supported ASEAN countries in their efforts to harmonize e-commerce. This cooperation takes place as part of UNCTAD's work programme on E-commerce and Law Reform, which is housed in the ICT Analysis Section of the organization's Division on Technology and Logistics. UNCTAD has also assisted other developing regions to build their capacities to support e-commerce law harmonization. UNCTAD often works in partnership with relevant international organizations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL).
UNCTAD's work on e-commerce law reform is supported financially by the Government of Finland.