Panel Discussion on the Development Implications of the Proposed WTO Plurilateral Negotiations on Electronic Commerce

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The session was moderated by Mr Xiangchen Zhang (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the WTO), who opened by asking how to find the balance between the regulation of data protection and cybersecurity, and continued with other questions: What are the impacts of plurilateral agreements and outcomes from the negotiations? How are the developing countries prepared to participate in the fourth industrial revolution? He noted possible e-commerce topics to be negotiated in the plurilateral negotiations.

Mr Mukhisa Kituyi (Secretary-General, UNCTAD) started by explaining the challenges of plurilateral agreements in the WTO. He noted that a failure in multilateral negotiations could have many consequences for international trade. He said that trade facilitation negotiations helped reach multilateral agreements. He added that the multilateral trading system is in crisis, and highlighted the importance of working together on the international level for common interests.
Furthermore, he said that he is confident that countries will come together to seize the opportunity offered by e-commerce.

Ms Frances Lisson (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the WTO) said that it is important to discuss the challenges and opportunities of e-commerce and the WTO e-commerce initiative. She added that the digital economy contributes to the creation of more jobs. She noted that during the last ten years, the regional trade agreements (RTAs) increased the progress of e-commerce and underlined the necessity of moving toward WTO negotiations.

Lisson said that e-commerce initiatives demonstrated the importance of this topic in the multilateral trading system. She highlighted that the joint statement on e-commerce included inclusive trade for developing countries, adding that the digital divide is real and noting the importance of the least-developed countries (LDCs) negotiation processes. She stated that a new agreement must take into account previous WTO agreements concerning issues of the digital divide.

She concluded by reiterating that e-commerce is a huge opportunity for all and encouraged support for Internet access.

Mr Kham-Inh Khitchadeth (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Lao People's Democratic Republic to the WTO) stated that LDCs must participate in e-commerce negotiations. He mentioned that e-commerce is very important to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs). He noted the challenges plurilateral agreements face to tackle e-commerce issues and reiterated that the WTO must remain inclusive of LDCs.

Khitchadeth was optimistic that the WTO will support the LDCs active participation in e-commerce negotiations. Finally, he noted the importance of flexibility as a tool for the LDCs to engage in the digital economy.

Mr J. S. Deepak (Ambassador and Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of India to the WTO) explained that India is the founder of the GATT agreement and said that his country understands the opportunity offered by e-commerce. However, he said that in the current situation it is premature to begin e-commerce negotiations. He stated that during the eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, there was a clear mandate to pursue the 1998 work programme. He noted the need to understand the challenges of e-commerce and the analysis of the GATT and GATS agreements. He asked: What are the impacts of e-commerce agreements on the those previous agreements? Do we have a digital policy? Do we have digital industrialisation?

Furthermore, Deepak noted the challenges of lost jobs in LDCs during the coming decades. He explained that the population must be prepared to enter this new industrial revolution and emphasised that data is a new resource for development. He noted that data is mostly produced in developing countries and that a clear understanding of data localisation, data protection, and cloud computing is needed. He said that the custom duties on electronic transmissions can be a challenge for developing countries. He added that negotiations on e-commerce have to enable developing countries to take advantage of new opportunities and achieve better treatment in digital trade.

Deepak said that without policy space on national and regional levels, it will be hard for the developing countries to engage in the digital economy and added that UNCTAD can help them to build digital and e-commerce domestic policies.

Mr Paolo Garzotti (Deputy Permanent Representative of the EU to the WTO) started by making clear that negotiations have to take place at the multilateral level. He said that we need to negotiate a comprehensive agreement on e-commerce and to develop flexibility during negotiations. He pointed out the need for transparency and inclusive participation. He noted the importance of electronic payments for consumers, and said that digital issues should be discussed in multilateral meetings.

Garzotti emphasised the importance of trust and the participation of business in building the e-commerce environment. He also added that developed and developing countries have different challenges in digital trade and must work together as WTO members to create the best possible global rules.

Mr Eloi Laourou (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Benin to the WTO) said that countries, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and businesses are all using e-commerce and explained that we should take into account the needs and interests of the LDCs during the negotiations. He mentioned data flows, data localisation, and data protection as challenges for LDCs. He also supported India’s position and said that it is important for LDCs to join consultations about e-commerce. Furthermore, he underlined digital infrastructure and digital training as LDCs’ biggest challenges in order to become fully engaged in digital trade.

Mr Teddy Soobramanien (Head, Hub and Spokes Programme and Economic Adviser Multilateral Trade, Commonwealth Secretariat) started by explaining the transformation of trade by blockchain, platforms and other digital tools. He noted the challenges for small countries in entering digital trade and noted the readiness of Bangladesh to address e-commerce issues and highlighted the importance of co-operation among countries. In conclusion, he highlighted trade facilitation agreements as tools to build a solid platform for achieving digital trade.

By Gilles D. Bana

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