Information about the organization


Briefing note: Electronic commerce

Electronic commerce, commonly known as e-commerce, involves the digital transfer of  goods and services across borders. Broadly speaking, e-commerce is the sale or purchase of goods or services conducted over the internet or other computer networks. An e‑commerce transaction can be between enterprises, households, individuals, governments and other public or private organizations.


Updated: November 2015

THIS EXPLANATION is designed to help the public understand developments in the WTO. While every effort has been made to ensure the contents are accurate, it does not prejudice member governments’ positions.

The Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce adopted by the WTO’s Second Ministerial Conference in May 1998 urged the WTO General Council to establish a comprehensive work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from global e-commerce (contained in document WT/L/274). Ministers also agreed to continue their practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until their next session. This is known as the moratorium on e-commerce. The moratorium has been extended at subsequent ministerial conferences.


Work programme

The WTO Work Programme on Electronic Commerce covers all issues related to trade arising from global e-commerce, including enhancing internet connectivity and access to information and telecommunications technologies and public internet sites, the growth of mobile commerce, electronically delivered software, cloud computing, the protection of confidential data, privacy and consumer protection. The programme also explores the economic development opportunities afforded by e-commerce for developing countries, particularly least-developed countries.

The work programme instructed four WTO bodies to explore the relationship between existing WTO agreements and e-commerce. Specifically, the Council for Trade in Services was instructed to examine the treatment of e-commerce in the legal framework of the General Agreement on Trade in Services; the Council for Trade in Goods was instructed to examine aspects of e-commerce relevant to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and other WTO agreements affecting trade in goods; the Council for Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Council) was instructed to examine the intellectual property issues arising in relation to e-commerce, namely the protection and enforcement of copyright and related rights as well as trademarks and new technologies and access to technology; and the Committee on Trade and Development was instructed to examine the development implications of e-commerce, taking into account the economic, financial and development needs of developing countries.


Recent discussions

At the Bali Ministerial Conference in December 2013, WTO members adopted a decision on the work programme on e-commerce (document WT/L/907). This included an agreement to extend the moratorium on e-commerce. Specifically, members agreed to abstain from imposing customs  duties on electronic transmissions until the 10th Ministerial Conference, which members later agreed would be held in Nairobi in December 2015.

The work programme encourages continued discussions on electronic commerce in relation to commercial issues, development and new technology based on proposals submitted by members in the respective WTO bodies. Ministers further instructed the General Council to hold periodic reviews of progress on the work programme at its meetings in July and December 2014 and July 2015.

The Tenth Dedicated Discussion on E-commerce was held on 16 February 2015. At that meeting, the Secretariat made a factual presentation of the work programme, focusing on the mandate and on what had been discussed in the WTO since its adoption.

Discussion of e-commerce has also continued in various WTO bodies throughout 2014 and 2015. Some proposals were submitted by members in the Council for Trade in Services. However, no proposals were submitted by members in the Council for Trade in Goods and in the Committee on Trade and Development. There has been no further work on e-commerce in the TRIPS Council. 

Consultations among members resulted in a draft decision on the work programme on e-commerce for ministers’ consideration in Nairobi. Ministers are expected to extend the e-commerce moratorium until the next session of the Ministerial Conference in 2017. 


Jargon buster

Copyright: Rights of authors in their literary and artistic works.

Trademarks: A sign or a combination of signs that is used to distinguish the goods or services of one enterprise from those of another. The owner of a trademark has the exclusive right to use it in the marketplace to identify certain goods or services, or to authorize (or license) others to use it in return for payment or other benefits.

Cloud computing: the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer.

E-commerce moratorium: a decision taken by WTO members which entails that they should not impose customs duties on electronic transmissions.