E-commerce has been one of the main engines promoting the growth of the Internet over the past 15 years. The importance of e-commerce is illustrated by the title of the document that initiated the reform of Internet governance and established ICANN: the 1997 Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, which states that ‘the private sector should lead’ the Internet governance process and that the main function of this governance will be to ‘enforce a predictable, minimalist, consistent, and simple legal environment for commerce’. These principles are the foundation of the ICANN-based Internet governance regime.
The choice of a definition for e-commerce has many practical and legal implications. Specific rules are applied depending on whether a particular transaction is classified as e-commerce, such as those regulating taxation and customs.
For the US government, the key element distinguishing traditional commerce from e-commerce is the online commitment to selling goods or services. This means that any commercial deal concluded online should be considered an e-commerce transaction, even if the realisation of the deal involves physical delivery. For example, purchasing a book via Amazon.com is considered an e-commerce transaction even though the book is usually delivered via traditional mail. The WTO defines e-commerce more precisely as: ‘the production, distribution, marketing, sale, or delivery of goods and services by electronic means’. The EU approach to e-commerce deals with ‘information society services’ that cover ‘any service normally provided for remuneration, at a distance, by means of electronic equipment for the processing (including digital compression) and storage of data, and at the individual request of a recipient of a service’.
The WTO and e-commerce
As the key policy player in modern global trade, the WTO has established a system of agreements regulating international trade. The major treaties are the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) dealing with the trade in goods, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Within this framework, the WTO regulates many relevant e-commerce issues, including telecommunication liberalisation, IPR, and some aspects of ICT development.
Although e-commerce has been on the WTO’s diplomatic back-burner, various initiatives have arisen and a number of key issues have been identified.
Other international e-commerce initiatives
One of the most successful and widely supported international initiatives in the field of e-commerce is the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law on Electronic Commerce. The focus of the Model Law is on mechanisms for the integration of e-commerce with traditional commercial law (e.g. recognising the validity of electronic documents). The Model Law has been used as the basis for e-commerce regulation in many countries.
Another initiative designed to develop e-commerce is the introduction of e-business XML (ebXML) by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/123 CEFACT).
The OECD’s activities touch on various aspects related to e-commerce, including consumer protection and digital signatures. The OECD emphasises promotion and research regarding e-commerce through its recommendations and guidelines.
UNCTAD is particularly active in research and capacity-building, focusing on the relevance of e-commerce to development. Every year it monitors the evolution of the information economy in a report which assesses the role of new technologies in trade and development.
In the business sector, the most active international organisations are the International Chamber of Commerce, which produces a wide range of recommendations and analyses in the field of e-commerce; and the Global Business Dialogue, which promotes e-commerce in both the international and the national context.
The EU developed an e-commerce strategy at the so-called Dot Com Summit of EU leaders in Lisbon (March 2000). Although it embraced a private and market-centred approach to e-commerce, the EU also introduced a few corrective measures aimed at protecting public and social interests (the promotion of universal access, a competition policy involving consideration of the public interest, and a restriction in the distribution of harmful content).
The EU adopted the Directive on Electronic Commerce as well as a set of other directives related to electronic signatures, data protection, and electronic financial transactions. In the Asia-Pacific region, the focal point of e-commerce co-operation is the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC). APEC established the E-Commerce Steering Group, which addresses various e-commerce issues, including consumer protection, data protection, spam, and cybersecurity. The most prominent initiative is APEC’s Paperless Trading Individual Action Plan, which aims to create paperless systems in cross-border trade.