Countries discuss proposed WTO talks to boost e-commerce

05 April 2019

UNCTAD is ready to support developing countries to maximize the development benefits of e-commerce, as they mull over proposed negotiations within the WTO.

UNCTAD stands ready to work with developing countries to enhance their preparedness to seize the opportunities of e-commerce should they choose to join proposed talks among World Trade Organization (WTO) members, the organization’s Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said on 5 April.

 “It is a fact that 76 WTO members have launched plurilateral negotiations on trade-related aspects of e-commerce. However, we must ensure that there is a balanced approach that adequately takes into account the needs and considerations of developing countries,” Dr. Kituyi told delegates at the fifth edition of UNCTAD eCommerce Week in Geneva, Switzerland.

Speaking at a session on the expectations for the proposed WTO negotiations – which have sparked diverging views among countries – the UNCTAD chief observed that although 88 WTO members are reluctant to join the process, it’s too late in the day for them to be stuck on whether or not there will be e-commerce talks at the global trade body at all

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"I don’t think anyone should fear to negotiate but nobody should negotiate out of fear," Dr. Kituyi said.

He urged countries to prioritize the sustainable development dimension of e-commerce, adding that its main would-be beneficiaries are in the countries that are outside the negotiations, and that their interests should be at the heart of any path forward on the future of rulemaking in e-commerce.

Participants at the session heard various national perspectives on the proposed plurilateral negotiations under the WTO.

Pitching for negotiations

“We know that the digital economy is growing about 32% faster than the wider economy and creating jobs three times more quickly. E-commerce has been a longstanding element of the WTO’s work,” said Frances Lisson, the ambassador of Australia to the WTO.

She said e-commerce provisions reflecting the nature of trade had increasingly become a feature of free trade and regional trade agreements. Over the last 10 years, over 25% of the regional trade agreements notified to the WTO had contained a specific chapter on e-commerce or individual e-commerce provisions, and that the number was growing, she underlined.

“It’s become increasingly clear that the WTO needs to engage constructively in this area now, or risk falling behind global development and commercial trade realities, and also risk declining in relevance,” Ms. Lisson said.

Now is the time to join the discussion on the negotiations, urged Paolo Garzotti, the ambassador of the European Union to the WTO, as “the rules are going to be written anyway.”

“If we don’t do it here in the WTO, they are already written in bilateral agreements,” he said.

He called on countries reluctant to support the negotiations to join the discussion now and participate in shaping the future of rules of multilateral digital trade.

“When you wait to create traffic rules when everybody is driving a car in the streets, you risk creating a lot of traffic jams and crashes,” he said.

Pushing back on negotiations

On the other hand, India’s ambassador to the WTO, J. S. Deepak, argued that proposed negotiations on e-commerce under the WTO were premature.

“It’s very important that in this area, we do not leap in the dark,” Mr. Deepak said.

He said it was not an opportune time for the proposed negotiations due to the lack of a mandate under the WTO, unpreparedness by countries, and the existence of several unresolved substantive policy issues on e-commerce.

Mr. Deepak proposed a bottom-up approach through which UNCTAD could help developing countries and least developed countries to craft digital or e-commerce policies, considering the concerns of all the stakeholders.

Taking a seat at the table

However, the ambassador of Benin to the WTO, Eloi Laourou, said joining the discussion on the proposed negotiations now would allow the concerns of least developed countries such as his to be considered from the get-go.

“That is why Benin joined the initiative,” he said.

By joining the discussion, developing countries could enrich the process by presenting their needs, concerns and priorities, Mr. Laourou said.

“I urge all least developed countries to join the initiative because we benefit from e-commerce and the digital economy…because negotiating is about discussing, about talking,” he added.

UNCTAD eCommerce Week – an annual gathering that draws leading e-commerce figures, start-ups, policy makers and officials from around the world – is taking place in Geneva from 1 to 5 April. The theme of this year’s week, which comprises dozens of sessions, is "From Digitalization to Development".