We engage in e-commerce transactions several times a week, whether we know it or not. Have you recently purchased a digital product such as software, movie, e-book, or service (e.g. buying tickets to a concert)? Have you ordered a physical product such as clothing and paid online? Have you ordered a physical book from a website and paid cash upon delivery? All these examples can be classified as e-commerce. In 2021, over 2.14 billion people worldwide are expected to buy goods and services online, up from 1.66 billion global digital consumers in 2016.

Global flows of goods, services, and finance have historically underpinned economic and social development. These flows have been transported in many ways: in ships across oceans, in chariots, in trucks over paved roads, and by cargo planes. In the 21st century, global flows are increasingly carried by datagrams – packets of digital information flowing through fibre-optic cables.

The ability to make data flow instantaneously through the Internet and the digitisation of information have transformed the composition of world trade. The impact of cross-border data flows on GDP growth is now larger than the impact of the traditional flow of goods. The fact that digital flows underpin and enable every other kind of cross-border flow helps explain this changing scenario: Even when ships carry physical products, customers increasingly order and pay online. 

The most visible interfaces connecting individuals to global flows are digital platforms. Amazon and Alibaba are the world’s largest e-commerce companies, maintaining enormous market shares. Platforms facilitate access to market information and reduce transaction costs for consumers. They have the potential to democratise e-commerce by allowing micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to have access to the global market. Nevertheless, many MSMEs face obstacles to access these platforms, such as platform fees. It may also become difficult for MSMEs to compete with the products offered by the platforms themselves.

Our Experts

Ms Marília Maciel

Digital Policy Senior Researcher, DiploFoundation

Brazilian-born Ms Marília Maciel is currently based in Strasbourg, France. She is involved in several Internet- governance-related projects, notably on the fields of digital economy, e-commerce, and cybersecurity.