Setting global trade rules on e-commerce – opportunities, challenges, perspectives, and the Impact on developing countries

1 Apr 2019 13:15h - 14:45h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the UNCTAD E-commerce Week]

The session was moderated by Mr John Ronald Deep Ford (Ambassador and Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Guyana) who started by asking three questions. First, what is the status of e-commerce in our countries and what can be improved? Second, what are the national perspectives of e-commerce? Third, what are the challenges and opportunities of e-commerce for developing countries?

Mr François Xavier Ngarambe (Ambassador & Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the World Trade Organization (WTO)) started by explaining the situation of e-commerce rules in Rwanda and developing countries. He noted that some WTO members are ready to negotiate rules on a multilateral level, while other countries need more time to tackle this e-commerce issue. According to Ngarambe, there is a partnership in Rwanda between Alibaba and the Rwandan government on e-commerce businesses and added that this is an important tool for Rwandan businessmen to sell their products in China and other global markets. He emphasised the role of digital platforms designed by young Rwandans in the health, education, and transportation sectors. He added that now is the time for negotiations, not discussions, on free flows of data, technology transfer, and data protection. However, he noted the need for data rules with close partnership in international organisations like UNCTAD, the WTO, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Finally, he pointed to e-signature, e-authentication, data processing, and the digital infrastructure.

Mr Tan Hung Seng (Ambassador & Permanent Representative of Singapore to the WTO and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)) said that e-commerce is a very important tool for international trade, and that small developing countries have to respond to this digital transformation. He explained three points: e-commerce in Singapore is playing a big role in the GDP (50%) of the country in helping micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). The MSMEs’ digital programme helps to participate in the digital transformation and the ecosystem. Second, Seng said that Asia is the fastest-growing continent in Internet economy. E-commerce rules need to be addressed in order to facilitate cross-border commerce, transparency, privacy, data protection, etc. Third, he pointed to the process of international trade rules in e-commerce, and Singapore is encouraging participation in working together to build the e-commerce rules in a multilateral trading system. Finally, he noted the challenges of e-commerce in Singapore, and the lack of time on e-commerce negotiations.

Mr Makeda Antoine-Cambridge (Ambassador & Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago to the WTO) said that there is potential for e-commerce to facilitate the business community in Trinidad and Tobago. She noted the high quality of telecommunications and the mobile phones’ role in doing business. However, she said that there is still a lack of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, connectivity, etc. Antoine-Cambridge pointed to electronic transactions laws, cybersecurity laws, and cybercrime rules in her country. Moreover, she explained how Jamaican rules are facilitating tourism in the region. She noted that there must be discussions in the WTO, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and ITU in order to help small countries integrate into global e-commerce.

Ms Mere Falemaka (Permanent Representative and Ambassador Permanent Delegation of the Pacific Islands Forum to the United Nations, WTO and other International organisations in Geneva) explained the challenges of the Pacific Islands in promoting e-commerce. She noted the potential of digital trade in tourism and agriculture. Moreover, there are challenges on the domestic level in e-transactions, e-payment, and data protection. Falemaka emphasised the importance of e-commerce for SMEs on the Pacific Islands in exporting various products. She highlighted the institutional mechanisms on e-commerce strategies and digitalisation. She said that only few countries have the ICT infrastructures in this region. She noted the limited digital skills and connectivity which have to be addressed by the governments. However, she highlighted the regional framework in developing an e-commerce strategy, accessibility and connectivity.

Ms Aileen Kwa (Coordinator, Trade and Development Programme, South Centre) made three main observations with regards to the impact of the exponential digitisation on e-commerce and global trade norms. First, she noted that data is a key point in doing e-commerce. She said that the flow of data helps to enhance productivity and competitiveness. Moreover, she pointed to the role of platforms as ‘extractive apparatus for data’. Second, she said that goods can now be transported through digital transmission and the traditional trade policy are ineffective (tariffs, GATS market access limitations). She highlighted the need to regulate data flows and localisation requirements. Finally, she noted the key barriers to digital trade and the regulation of data for economic value (data sovereignty). She talked about the plurilateral and multilateral issues in negotiating the data flow sector.

Ms Shamika Sirimanne (Director, Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD) highlighted the recent trends in ICT development internet use. She noted the fixed broadband subscription in 2017. Moreover, she said that the digital economy is evolving at different speeds and there are significant gaps in global connectivity, gender, and MSMEs.

Sirimanne emphasised both opportunities and risks for developing countries like more competition, access to global value chains, job creation, risk of crowding out, risk of online fraud. She said that there must be the readiness of countries. She pointed to the seven policy areas of trade readiness like trade logistics, payments solutions, and e-commerce strategy.

However, she noted the key barriers to the development of e-commerce and the digital economy are limited e-commerce skills among MSMEs, the lack of shared vision and strategy for e-commerce, and no statistics. She highlighted the need of a law reform and implementation of the rules of e-transaction, consumer protection, privacy and data protection, and cybercrime. Moreover, she noted the issue of regulators on national levels. For the regional dimension, she mentioned the more regional integration programmes in fostering an inclusive dialogue, bringing evidence for decision-making, technical assistance, research and analysis, and harnessing country readiness to engage in the digital economy.


By Gilles D. Bana