SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

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Minister Carr,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon and thank you for the kind invitation.

When we talk about trade in the digital era, I think we must first acknowledge that we are in the midst of a revolution. We are all working to better understand what this means for our economies – and for our shared rules, practices and institutions.

This starts, of course, with informed discussions like this.

Advances in technology are changing the way we trade and do business today. They have further facilitated trade in digital products and some types of services.

The latest data is for 2017. It shows annual growth in global e-commerce sales of 13%, reaching around 29 trillion dollars. The number of online shoppers has registered a similar increase. One quarter of the world's population purchased goods and services online in 2017. And importantly, the share of those buying from abroad rose from 15% in 2015 to 21% in 2017.

These statistics do not separate out goods or services purchased online. Nonetheless the upward trend is clear.

This presents countless opportunities to reach a broader network of buyers, access the most competitive suppliers, tap into global markets and participate in global value chains.

A recent WTO study found that by lowering costs and increasing productivity, digital technologies could provide an additional boost to trade by up to 34% by 2030.

But while it is clear that e‑commerce can unleash great potential, we also need to be aware of the challenges involved.

The digital divide still poses a big barrier. According to the ITU, the proportion of households with Internet access at home in developed countries is twice as high as in developing countries.

Digital gaps are also manifested within countries. Men, urban residents and young people are more likely to be online than women, rural dwellers and older people.

For example, there are an estimated 250 million fewer women online globally than men.

We have to address these gaps. But being connected is not enough. Even when you are connected, other obstacles such as inadequate regulatory frameworks or lack of appropriate skills can still pose big barriers.

Without the right framework in place, there is a clear risk that big players will increasingly dominate, leaving smaller businesses behind.

To ensure that this revolution is inclusive, a lot of work needs to happen domestically – which is something that you will discuss today.

Of course, cooperation at the international level through organizations like the WTO can be important as well.

Over the past few years, at the WTO, we have witnessed growing interest in discussing e-commerce issues in more detail.

At the multilateral level, members are continuing the exploratory work under the existing Work Programme on Electronic Commerce. Here an important focus is assessing the impact and scope of the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions.

At the same time, we have had important progress on other fronts.

At our Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in 2017, a group of WTO members signed a Joint Statement to explore further work on e-commerce. This includes developed, developing and least-developed members.

While not all members participate in these conversations, the proponents are clear that the debate is open to any member that wants to join.

This is a very positive sign about what is possible within the WTO. Members are prepared to be flexible and innovative to make progress.

Engagement has been excellent so far. Private sector interest is higher than ever. And the work has started to bear fruit.

As of this month, 77 WTO members accounting for 90% of global trade have commenced negotiations on trade-related aspects of e‑commerce.

A first substantive round of meetings was held last week.

I understand that delegations discussed proposals on a wide range of issues, such as: facilitating electronic transactions, consumer protection, transparency, and non-discrimination and liability. Further discussions will be held next month.

E-commerce issues range widely in their level of complexity and ambition. Time will tell what members can achieve.

Ensuring that these discussions remain open to all members is important – but proponents should also be seeking to ensure that poorer countries that want to participate are helped to do so.

Ultimately, the test of our success in responding to this revolution will be the extent to which we use it as a force for greater inclusion.

I hope this discussion will shed further light on how we can seize that opportunity. 

Thank you.

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