Could WTO e-commerce proposals help development?

28 Sep 2017 11:30h - 13:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports from WTO Public Forum 2017]

The session focused on the positive and negative implications of the current e-commerce proposals discussed within the WTO in promoting development and sustainable development goals (SDGs). In particular, attention was paid to regulations regarding digital privacy and custom controls. The event was moderated by Ms Sanya Reid Smith, Legal advisor and Senior Researcher, Third World Network, who opened the session thanking both European Digital Rights (EDRi) and Public Citizen for their contributions in organising the event.

Ms Ana B Hinojosa, Director of Compliance and Facilitation at the World Customs Organization (WCO), launched the discussion by taking a regulatory perspective on e-commerce. She specified that she would focus only on the cross-border e-commerce related to the trade of physical goods, thus excluding domestic e-commerce and trade of services and digital goods. She insisted upon the fact that e-commerce has the potential to increase the cross-border trade of goods; however, this is ‘overstressing’ the current customs system and making existing infrastructures insufficient in dealing with an increasing ‘tsunami of little packages’. She warned about the possible consequences deriving from an overflowed system: the possibility for criminal organisations to violate existing intellectual property regulations and to counterfeit existing goods.

Ms Vahini Naidu, Counsellor at the South African Permanent Mission to the WTO, considered the impact of e-commerce on national development strategies. She did not overlook the fact that e-commerce can present both opportunities and challenges for developing countries; however, she said that the determining factor between the two lies on a country’s economy, geography, society, culture, and on the market’s response to economic digitalisation. Naidu used the situation in South Africa as an example, affirming that ‘most of the proposed regulations of e-commerce are actually anti-development’ because existing rules mainly address cross-border e-commerce while the biggest challenge is upon domestic e-commerce, on ‘how to educate the market’. She concluded by stating that the discourse portraying e-commerce as inclusive is a ‘misguided’ narrative because inclusiviness is assessable only financially but not development-wise.

Dr Burcu Kilic, Legal and Policy Director, Access to Medicines, Innovation and Information at Public Citizen, discussed consumers’ data protection regulations. She considered that ‘with simply 70 likes on Facebook, artificial intelligency (AI) algorithms are estimated to know a person better than his or her room-mates’. Thus, she claimed that current regulations protecting consumers’ data in the United State are not restrictive because such a narrow approach is considered to be detrimental to consumers’ freedom of choice. She concluded by stating that the provisional text of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) yields very few guarantees for consumers’ data, especially in the case of cross-border data transfer.

Ms Maryant Fernández Pérez, Senior Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), reaffirmed the necessity to consider stronger consumers’ data protection regulations. She further stated that ‘meaningful trade discussions’ have to include two important elements: a strong human rights clause (e.g. right to privacy) and to guarantee network neutrality (i.e. all Internet traffic is treated equally). She concluded by considering that the existing European regulations are not sufficient for protecting individuals’ human rights; however, under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), individuals in Europe do have greater protection compared to the US regulatory system.

Mr Guillaume Champeau, Ethics and Public Relations Officer at Qwant, closed the panel discussion by explaining that Qwant is the first independent general search engine in the European Union. This is because Qwant has developed its own technology and search algorithms. Profit is made through advertisers, i.e. by the creation of contextual ads based on the content and not on the collection and selling of people’s data. He further stressed the importance of obtaining users’ informed consent when providing personal data, clarifying that he was not personally against the free flow of data but ‘users have to be aware where the data is going and how it will be used’.

by Marco Lotti