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Issues covered by the WTO’s committees and agreements

ELECTRONIC COMMERCE: BRIEFING NOTE
Work continues on issues needing clarification

The growing importance of electronic commerce in global trade led WTO members to adopt a declaration on global electronic commerce on 20 May 1998 at their Second Ministerial Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

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The Declaration directed the WTO General Council to establish a comprehensive work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from electronic commerce, and to present a progress report to the WTO’s Third Ministerial Conference.

The 1998 declaration also included a so-called moratorium stating that “members will continue their current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmission”.

The work programme was adopted by the WTO General Council on 25 September 1998. It continued after the Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle, November 1999.

  

The Doha decision

At the Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha in 2001, ministers agreed to continue the work programme as well as to extend the moratorium on customs duties. They instructed the General Council, in paragraph 34 of the Doha Declaration, to report on further progress to the Fifth Ministerial in Cancún, in 2003.

Under the work programme, issues related to electronic commerce have been examined by the Council for Trade in Services, the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for TRIPS and the Committee on Trade and Development. During the course of the work programme a number of background notes on the issues have been produced by the WTO Secretariat and many member governments have submitted documents outlining their own thoughts.

  

Since then …

After the Doha Ministerial Declaration, the General Council agreed to hold “dedicated” discussions on cross-cutting issues, i.e. issues whose potential relevance may “cut across” different agreements of the multilateral system. So far, there have been five discussions dedicated to electronic commerce, held under General Council’s auspices.

The issues discussed included: classification of the content of certain electronic transmissions; development-related issues; fiscal implications of e-commerce; relationship (and possible substitution effects) between e-commerce and traditional forms of commerce; imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions; competition; jurisdiction and applicable law/other legal issues.

Participants in the dedicated discussions hold the view that the examination of these cross-cutting issues is unfinished, and that further work to clarify these issues is needed.