TradeTech such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) and the internet of things (IoT) all offer the potential to facilitate trade by improving efficiency, reducing costs and providing greater resilience in supply chains, the publication notes. But international policy coordination is required, in particular the development of explicit rules through trade agreements to provide legal certainty on a variety of emerging issues related to the digital field.

“The publication we're launching today builds on extensive consultations with private sector experts and is a fantastic example of public-private collaboration,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said at the launch of the report. “It identifies the five key building blocks of trade digitalization and discusses how trade agreements could be leveraged to further advance them.”

“Advanced technologies have the potential to make trade more efficient and more inclusive, but for this to happen policy action needs to keep pace with technological developments,” the Director-General added. “We hope that this publication will help advance thinking and catalyse action to unleash the potential of TradeTech to the benefit of everyone.”

“New technologies have always been important in driving trade,” noted Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum (WEF). “Technologies are available when it comes to bringing data across borders, when it comes to e-signatures, and when it comes also to documents, but what we see in this report is that the legal frameworks are not there.” 

“Tech can be part of the solution and trade can really be an enabler in this sense,” he added. “We need the trade deals that can let tech play that constructive role.”

The WTO-WEF report notes that since 2010, regional trade agreements have increasingly integrated e-commerce and digital trade provisions. Recent agreements, such as the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, cover a wider range of e-commerce issues than previously, including a chapter on e-commerce and digital trade. Governments have also introduced digital-only trade agreements, such as the Singapore–Australia Digital Economy Agreement (SADEA) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) between Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, which address a wide range of digital trade issues.

In addition, more than 85 WTO members accounting for more than 90 per cent of global trade are participating in the ongoing Joint Initiative on E-commerce, which seeks to negotiate new rules on trade and electronic commerce.

Despite these ongoing efforts, “there remain many unseized opportunities and unexplored policies,” according to the report. Unseized opportunities remain in connectivity, data sharing and e-signatures. Other issues such as electronic transferable records, automated contracts, digital tokens, interoperability of data models, and digital identity of legal and physical persons and of physical and digital goods are either not discussed in trade agreements or only addressed in a few recent agreements.

“These new policy frontiers can help bring up trade to a new speed, and work for all,” the report adds.

Other challenges include bridging the “digital divide” and developing communications infrastructure and wireless technologies to enable continuous connectivity for advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, distributed ledger technology and the internet of things.

The publication concludes that one reason the trade policy world is largely unprepared for TradeTech is that technologies give rise to policy issues that span across different ministries and groups of regulatory authorities and stakeholders that do not intersect with trade traditionally (e.g. antitrust, data governance, cybersecurity, privacy, law enforcement, platform liabilities, digital taxation).

To address this, the trade and technology communities need to implement a more agile and flexible approach to TradeTech policy that incorporates the principles of forward-looking, openness, proportionality, and fairness, while also adopting nuanced rules that carefully take into account risks and address the challenges faced. The publication also urges international regulatory cooperation to ensure policy coherence and avoid fragmentation as well as strengthening public-private partnerships.

The report “The promise of TradeTech: Policy approaches to harness trade digitalization” can be accessed here. The webcast of the launch event is available here.




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