WTO PUBLIC FORUM 2018
The WTO, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Electronic Trade Platform (eWTP) opened the debate on this issue with a high-level panel session titled "E-commerce 2030: enabling an inclusive future for e-commerce", organized as part of the "Enabling E-commerce" initiative launched on the margins of the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017. This initiative attempts to galvanize debate on e-commerce issues among a wide range of stakeholders, encouraging the sharing of ideas and best practice.
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo called on the international community to ensure that the digital revolution now underway is fully inclusive and leaves nobody behind. He stressed that e-commerce provides a springboard to overcome some of the traditional obstacles to trade but warned that without the right approach, big players could easily dominate this market at the expense of smaller business.
"If we cross our arms and do nothing, that is precisely what is going to happen. Poorer countries could also be left behind. We know that around 4 billion people do not yet have internet access – and of course this is concentrated in developing and least-developed economies. But even when you are connected, there are still many other barriers. We need also the right policy infrastructure, such as regulatory and payment systems – as well as the appropriate skills and expertise. So if we want this digital revolution to be inclusive, we have to work on all of these areas," he said. His full speech is available here.
DG Azevêdo led the debate, where speakers agreed on the need to urgently face the variety of challenges needed to ensure that the benefits of e-commerce are more widely shared around the world as well as to reduce and eliminate the existing digital divide which particularly affects least-developed countries (LDCs).
Borge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum (WEF), noted that e-commerce offers new opportunities that can contribute to the development of regional and global value chains for both goods and services, while playing a key role in reducing inequalities. Brende said that new thinking, regulatory coherence, policy space for governments, security for workers, flexibility for business and sustainable choices for consumers are the main ingredients to achieve results.
"We need to come together to shape responses and create the appropriate supporting global architecture. The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be a very good thing for humankind, but there are currently very few protocols and regulations to secure this. We definitely need traffic rules," he said.
Speaking on behalf of the Electronic World Trade Platform, Jack Ma, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, said that less talk and more action is needed to face the new trade reality born as a result of the e-commerce boom. He called for an upgrade to existing trade rules, not the creation of new ones, and to open the debate on this matter beyond governments.
"Nobody can stop the technological revolution, so all the rules have to be forward-thinking. We have to be sure that rules and laws are flexible because businesses always develop much faster. Innovation always develops much faster and I think future laws should not be driven only by governments; they should be driven by private sectors and all stakeholders together," he said.
UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi spoke of the main challenges faced by the international community when dealing with this new form of trade: measuring e-commerce, identifying where the gaps are, and raising awareness on the need to close the digital divide. He also noted that governments in LDCs have to be clear about what they intend to do in terms of e-commerce before seeking assistance – "broadband connectivity without the skills and capacities is a wasted opportunity" – and underlined the importance of visibility.
"Taking into account that 90 per cent of businesses will be online in the future, our main developmental challenge is how much we can make SMEs, women's businesses in rural areas and young people have visibility in the digital market place," he said.
Ambassador Robert Dufter Salama of Malawi said that LDCs are aware of the opportunity for job creation, business expansion and thriving economies the digital revolution offers. However, they face major challenges in jumping on the bandwagon of e-commerce – 62 per cent of the population without access to electricity, high illiteracy rates and high prices for IT products as well as few internet service providers and inadequate financial services.
"In Africa, there will be 1.1 billion people in 2030. We know that there is a need for us to create jobs, and we are aware that traditional businesses, that is manufacturing and exporting, will not be enough to meet the aspirations of the young people," he said.
Ambassador Frances Lisson of Australia noted that digital trade in e-commerce is the future of international trade and is also an increasingly powerful economic enabler. To capture the opportunities offered by digital trade at all levels, she said, all stakeholders involved need to get the policy settings right. In this context, she stressed that "the growing call by consumers and businesses, including MSMEs, to move towards setting global standards for digital trade in the WTO have been heard."
"At MC11, a group of 71 members representing 77 per cent of global trade and all the regions of the world, agreed to initiate exploratory talks towards future WTO negotiations. And as chair of this process, my priority has been to encourage and facilitate a substantive discussion on the trade-related e-commerce issues raised by members, and to ensure that the process is open, transparent and inclusive, and member-driven. All WTO members are encouraged to join these exploratory talks. It is clear that there is real appetite for substantive discussion and engagement in this initiative has exceeded expectations," she said.