ELECTRONIC COMMERCE 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 the Second Ministerial Conference in Geneva.. The Declaration directed the WTO General Council to establish a work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from electronic commerce. 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”. Under the work programme, issues related to electronic commerce were examined by the Services, Goods and TRIPS (intellectual property) councils, and the Trade and Development Committee.

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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. At the Fifth Ministerial in Cancún in 2003, ministers reaffirmed the elements agreed at Doha.


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The following is a summary of the issues that have emerged from the work programme on electronic commerce since 1998, and from dedicated discussions held under the auspices of the General Council since 2002:

Downloadable products

A difference of views persists on whether certain downloadable products (e.g. software, the texts of books) should be classified as goods or services. Until the advent of the internet these products (e.g. software on CD-ROMs) were delivered by conventional physical means, and they crossed borders in the form of packaged goods, which are covered by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). With the advent of electronic commerce and the transmission of digital versions of these products through the internet the question arose as to whether they should be treated as goods, subject to GATT rules, or as services subject to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). More recently, it was suggested that provisions of both agreements may apply in certain circumstances.

The prevailing perception in the Council for Trade in Goods is that WTO provisions in the goods area can be relevant for electronic transmissions so far as the content of these transmissions can be qualified as goods. In the GATS Council there is a general view that the General Agreement on Trade in Services does not distinguish between technological means of supplying a service, and that its provisions may apply to the supply of services by electronic means.

E-commerce and development

The Committee on Trade and Development considered it important to keep track of developments in e-commerce in relation to the interests and concerns of developing countries. In this connection, the CTD discussed relevant issues and organized seminars on the revenue implications of e-commerce (2002), government facilitation of e-commerce (2001) and e-commerce and development (1999).

Intellectual property rights

In the TRIPS Council, Members felt that the novelty and complexity of the intellectual property issues arising from electronic commerce were such that further study was required by the international community. It was noted, however, that a secure and predictable legal environment for intellectual property rights would foster the development of electronic commerce.