MC12 briefing note

E-commerce

Recognizing that global electronic commerce is growing and creating new opportunities for trade, WTO members at the Second Ministerial Conference in May 1998 adopted a Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce. This declaration urged the WTO General Council to establish a comprehensive work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from e-commerce. 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 electronic transmissions”.

What is electronic commerce?

The Work Programme defines e-commerce as the “production, distribution, marketing, sale or delivery of goods and services by electronic means”.

What is the WTO Work Programme on e-commerce?

The Work Programme aims to examine trade-related issues associated with e-commerce. These 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, and 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.

The Work Programme instructed four WTO bodies to explore the relationship between existing WTO agreements and e-commerce. These bodies are the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for Trade in Services, the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and the Committee on Trade and Development. The General Council keeps the Work Programme under continuous review. In addition, it explores trade-related issues of a cross-cutting nature and examines all aspects of the Work Programme concerning the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions.

What has happened since the last Ministerial Conference (MC11)?

At the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference in December 2017, WTO members adopted a decision to reinvigorate the Work Programme. WTO members also agreed to refrain from imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until the 12th Ministerial Conference which – at the time of the decision - was to be held in 2019. Ministers further instructed the General Council to hold periodic reviews of progress on the Work Programme at its meetings in July and December 2018 and July 2019 and to report to the next Ministerial Conference.

In December 2019, WTO members renewed the moratorium on e-commerce until the 12th Ministerial Conference, which at that point was scheduled to take place in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on 8-11 June 2020. However, it did not take place due to COVID-19. The Conference was subsequently planned for Geneva from 30 November to 3 December 2021 but it was again postponed due to concerns about a new variant of COVID-19.

Members also agreed to continue work under the existing 1998 Work Programme on e-commerce in the early part of 2020.

Two workshops were held in 2019 and 2020 to inform members' discussions. These workshops focused on several aspects of the moratorium on customs duties on e-transmissions.

In summer 2020, WTO members put forward proposals on the implications of the moratorium, its scope, the definition of electronic transmissions and the implication of the moratorium on revenue loss for developing countries. This discussion is part of the broader developmental aspect of e-commerce: developing and least-developed countries face various challenges related to e-commerce, such as connectivity, infrastructure and capacity to implement policies related to e-commerce.

The General Council continued to review progress in the Work Programme based on reports submitted by the chairs of the relevant WTO bodies. The General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo convened a Structured Discussion under the Work Programme in July 2021. The discussion focused on three themes: electronic transmissions, imposition of internal non-discriminatory taxes on electronic transmissions, and e-commerce challenges and opportunities particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October 2021, a group of WTO members put forward a proposal that contains draft ministerial text for possible adoption by ministers at MC12 for the extension of the moratorium and continuing the reinvigoration of the work programme.

In a subsequent submission in November 2021, some members outlined that it is necessary to have more clarity on the definition of electronic transmissions, consensus on the scope of the moratorium and an understanding of the impact of the moratorium in order to enable the WTO members to take an informed decision at MC12 on whether or not to extend the moratorium on customs duties.

In late November, another proposal was put forward by some developing country members to support re-invigorating the work under the Work Programme while discontinuing the moratorium.

Views of members vary and consultations led by the outgoing General Council Chair Ambassador Castillo and the current General Council Chair Ambassador Didier Chambovey have continued ahead of the conference scheduled to take place from 12 to 15 June.

At a Special Session of the General Council on 7 June, the GC Chair Ambassador Chambovey said that he will put forward to ministers two draft decisions for their consideration at MC12.

Joint Statement on E-commerce

At the Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, a group of WTO members (71 members) issued a joint statement, where they announced they will launch "exploratory work" towards future WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce. In January 2019 in Davos, 76 WTO members issued a joint statement announcing the launch of negotiations on electronic commerce. The initiative is co-convened by Australia, Japan and Singapore and has grown to include 86 members. Members seek to achieve a high-standard outcome that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks, with the participation of as many WTO members as possible.

The negotiations are based on text proposals submitted by WTO members and are conducted through a combination of plenary, focus group and small group meetings. Currently, the discussions cover six main themes: enabling e-commerce, openness and e-commerce, trust and e-commerce, cross-cutting issues, telecommunications, and market access.

Under the Joint statement on E-commerce, the co-convenors issued a statement in December 2021 that took stock of the work achieved by the group and set targets for future work.

To date, participants have reached consensus on the following issues: online consumer protection; electronic signatures and authentication; unsolicited commercial electronic messages (spam); open government data; electronic contracts; transparency; and paperless trading. Negotiations are ongoing in small groups on open internet access; source code; customs duties; electronic transactions frameworks; e-invoicing and cybersecurity. Two new small groups on privacy and telecommunications were announced at the last plenary meeting on 19 May. The co-convenors announced that they are considering a stocktaking session in July and that they are working on ways to support the participation of developing countries and LDCs

More on the Joint Statement on e-commerce.

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