MC11 in brief

Electronic commerce

Electronic commerce, or e-commerce, is defined as the "production, distribution, marketing, sale or delivery of goods and services by electronic means". An e‑commerce transaction can be between enterprises, households, individuals, governments and other public or private organizations.

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 (WT/L/274). It was agreed that discussion of the e-commerce question would take place in the Council on Trade in Goods, the Council on Trade in Services, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Council and the Committee on Trade and Development. These WTO bodies were instructed to explore the relationship between existing WTO agreements and e-commerce. The General Council plays a central role and keeps the work programme under continuous review.

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 each subsequent ministerial conference.

Work programme

The WTO Work Programme on Electronic Commerce covers issues related to trade arising from global e-commerce. Some of these issues include the protection of privacy and public morals and prevention of fraud, access to and use of public telecommunications transport networks and services, rules of origin, increasing the participation of developing countries in the e-commerce marketplace, protection and enforcement of copyright and trademarks, enhancing the participation of developing countries and their small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The programme also explores the economic development opportunities afforded by e-commerce for developing countries, particularly least-developed countries.

Recent discussions

At the Nairobi Ministerial Conference in December 2015, WTO members adopted a decision on the Work Programme on E-commerce (WT/MIN(15)/42WT/L/977). This included an agreement to extend the moratorium on e-commerce. Specifically, WTO members agreed to abstain from imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until the 11th Ministerial Conference, which members later agreed would be held in Buenos Aires in December 2017. Ministers further instructed the General Council to hold periodic reviews of progress on the work programme at its meetings in July and December 2016 and July 2017 and to report to the next Ministerial Conference.

There have been several occasions for experience sharing through a number of workshops and seminars that were held during 2016 and 2017. Some of these were organized at the initiative of the "Friends of E-commerce for Development" group, which consists of Argentina, Chile, China,  Colombia, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uruguay, and the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia) group .

Previously, horizontal or cross-cutting issues were discussed in dedicated discussions which were held under the auspices of the General Council. The last dedicated discussion took place in October 2016. At that meeting, some members expressed concerns related to the process under which the discussions on e-commerce were taking place.

Discussion on e-commerce continued in the four WTO bodies throughout 2016 and 2017. Since mid-2016, 25 submissions have been made to the General Council as well as to the relevant WTO bodies. The objectives of the submissions vary; some simply chart e-commerce issues relevant to trade policy, some call for the establishment of a central locus for discussing all matters related to e-commerce, some call for rule making on specific topics such as copyright, e-signatures and consumer protection.

Since July 2017, members began submitting more focused papers taking into consideration the upcoming Ministerial Conference. From September 2017, the General Council Chair began intensive consultations with members in preparation for the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11). His bilateral consultations and the subsequent informal open-ended meetings focused on four main areas: the future of the Work Programme, the moratorium, possible negotiations on e-commerce, and the setting up of a working group or other institutional structure, as suggested by some members. Members are currently putting forward proposals that contain draft ministerial texts for possible adoption by ministers at MC11. Views of members vary and consultations are ongoing.


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.

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