Thirteenth WTO Ministerial Conference

Thirteenth WTO Ministerial Conference Thirteenth WTO Ministerial Conference Thirteenth WTO Ministerial Conference

13thMINISTERIAL CONFERENCE : briefing note


Electronic commerce was first introduced in the WTO at the Second Ministerial Conference in May 1998 when WTO members adopted a Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce. This declaration urged the WTO General Council to establish a  work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from e-commerce. Members also agreed to continue their practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until the next Ministerial Conference. This is known as the “moratorium on electronic transmissions”.

Since 1998, WTO members have periodically agreed to extend the moratorium and continue the work under the Work Programme. The last extension was agreed in June 2022 during WTO's 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12). The moratorium is due to lapse at the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in February 2024, unless WTO members decide to extend it again.

MC12 outcome and recent work on the Work Programme

In addition to extending the moratorium until MC13, WTO members at MC12 agreed to deepen their understanding of the scope, definition and the implication of the moratorium on developing countries, particularly with regards to revenues and policy space.

At MC12, members also agreed to revitalize the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce. In 2023, they looked at the digital divide, legal and regulatory frameworks and consumer protection, the moratorium, digital industrialization and e-commerce related technology transfer. Members concluded in September 2023 so-called "thematic discussions" on the Work Programme, covering topics identified by members. This discussion series focuses on the broader developmental aspect of e-commerce, recognizing that developing and least-developed countries face various challenges, such as connectivity, infrastructure and capacity-building to implement policies related to e-commerce.

In June 2023, a workshop provided an opportunity for WTO members to exchange views with international organisations on cross-cutting issues under the Work Programme. The workshop looked at work carried out at the international level on consumer protection, the digital divide, the moratorium on imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions and legal, regulatory frameworks on e-commerce.

In the lead-up to MC13

Members' views on the renewal of the moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transactions remain divergent. Proponents of the moratorium believe that it has supported a stable and predictable environment for digital trade to thrive. However, some WTO members have expressed concerns about the lack of clarity regarding the scope of the moratorium and the definition of electronic transmissions, as well as the potential foregone customs revenue. They have also expressed the desire to maintain policy space in light of the uncertainty associated with rapid technological change.

At the Senior Officials Meeting at the WTO on 24 October, many members supported the extension of the moratorium at MC13, while others considered that it should be lifted. Some called for more evidence-based discussions and further analysis on its scope, definition, and impact.

A third session was dedicated to the moratorium on 14 November. At this meeting, WTO members were presented with the findings of a report on "Digital Trade for Development" co-published by the IMF, the OECD, UNCTAD, the World Bank and the WTO. It was officially launched in December during UNCTAD's eWeek. The report looks into the role of digital trade in development and how economies can work together to reap the full benefits of digital trade for a more resilient and inclusive global trading system. The report addresses one of the key considerations in members' discussions with regards to the moratorium, that is to what extent it leads to government revenue losses.

In October 2023, WTO members under the leadership of Ambassador Usha Dwarka-Canabady,  held the first of a series of sessions focusing on preparations for MC13. The objective of these sessions was for members to begin reflecting and identifying possible elements and recommendations for ministers based on discussions held since the beginning of the year under the Work Programme. Following the meeting, members tabled proposals addressing the Work Programme and the moratorium on customs duties. The proponents of those proposals were encouraged by the facilitator to try to find common elements in the proposals and converge on a single text that could be put forward to ministers. Currently there are four proposals on these issues.

At the General Council meeting on 14 February 2024, Ambassador Dwarka-Canabady reported that WTO members were not able to converge on a common draft decision to be put forward to ministers at MC13 due to divergences on the moratorium and that the four proposals will be transmitted to ministers for their consideration. The proposals are:

  1. A proposal coordinated by Switzerland and Canada (WT/GC/W/909.Rev3), which seeks to capture the progress accomplished under the Work Programme since MC12 and proposes the continuation of work under the Programme. It also calls for an extension of the e-commerce moratorium until MC14.
  2. A proposal by South Africa (WT/GC/W/911), which proposes practical steps to be pursued under the Work Programme, such as the establishment of a fund that could provide developing economies, including least developed members, with targeted support to address the digital divide. The proposal further calls for an end to the moratorium on e-commerce and the reinvigoration of the Work Programme with a focus on development issues.
  3. A proposal put forward by Samoa on behalf of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group (WT/GC/W/916), which takes note of the efforts to reinvigorate the 1998 Work Programme. It instructs members to further increase engagement under the Programme with a continued focus on the development dimension. It also proposes to extend the moratorium until MC14 and to hold further discussions on the scope, definition and impact of the moratorium.
  4. A proposal by India (WT/GC/W/922) that makes no reference to the moratorium and focuses on the continuation of the Work Programme and reporting on it periodically to the General Council and ministerial meetings.   

Developments in e-commerce at recent ministerial conferences

On the margins of MC11 in 2017, a group of 71 members (developed and developing members) issued a Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce, committing participants to explore work towards future WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce.

Since MC11, work on electronic commerce in the WTO has therefore continued under two parallel tracks – multilaterally in the WTO General Council and its relevant subsidiary bodies through the Work Programme as well as under the Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce initiative, which kicked off negotiations on e-commerce in January 2019.

Joint Statement on E-commerce

Negotiations are ongoing among 90 WTO members, with The Gambia being the latest member to join. 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. Currently, the main themes covered by the discussions are: enabling e-commerce, openness and e-commerce, trust and e-commerce, cross-cutting issues, and telecommunications. The talks are led by Japan, Singapore and Australia.

In June 2022,  Australia, Japan, Singapore  and Switzerland launched the E-commerce Capacity Building Framework to strengthen digital inclusion and to help developing and least developed countries harness the opportunities of digital trade.

An updated negotiation text was issued in November 2023. The co-convenors shared a Chair's text in January 2024 to help advance the negotiations, with the aim of concluding them in a timely manner in 2024.  The co-convenors said that the text reflects their judgement on where consensus is most likely to be achieved in the agreement.

The initiative so far has "parked" the following 13 articles: online consumer protection; electronic signatures and authentication; unsolicited commercial electronic messages (spam); open government data; electronic contracts; transparency; paperless trading; cybersecurity; open internet access; electronic transaction frameworks; electronic invoicing; privacy and “single windows”.   Ongoing negotiations in smaller groups are focusing on topics including telecommunications services, cryptography-utilizing products, e-payments and development issues. Small groups' work on data flows and localisation and on source code have been paused for the moment following the recent withdrawal of the United States from those discussions.  

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), International Monetary Fund, World Bank, International Trade Centre, International Telecommunication Union, World Customs Organization, UNCITRAL.