Briefing note: Electronic commerce

Electronic commerce, commonly known as e-commerce, involves goods and services crossing borders electronically. 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 2013

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.

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The Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce adopted by the Second (Geneva) Ministerial Conference on 20 May 1998 urged the WTO General Council to establish a comprehensive work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from global e-commerce. The General Council adopted the plan for this work programme on 25 September 1998, initiating discussions on issues of e-commerce and trade by the Goods, Services and TRIPS (intellectual property) councils and the Committee on Trade and Development.

In 2011, at the WTO's Eighth Ministerial Conference, WTO members agreed to continue their current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until the Ninth Ministerial Conference. Ministers are expected to extend this moratorium at the 2013 Conference in Bali, Indonesia.


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 in least-developed countries.

At the Eighth Ministerial Conference in Geneva in December 2011, Ministers agreed to reinvigorate the Work Programme. They instructed the General Council to hold periodic reviews of the progress of the Programme. These reviews were undertaken at meetings in July and December 2012 and in July 2013.


Recent discussions

Since the 2011 Geneva Ministerial Conference, work on e-commerce has been substantively addressed in the Council for Trade in Services, the Committee on Trade and Development, the Council for Trade in Goods and other WTO bodies.

A number of initiatives were undertaken in the Council for Trade in Services. In 2012, discussions focused on submissions by WTO members, namely by the European Union and the United States on certain trade-related principles to enhance networks and develop e-commerce (S/C/W/338), by the United States on trade rules supporting innovative advances in computer application and platforms (S/C/W/339), by Switzerland on e-commerce by small and medium-sized enterprises (S/C/W/345), by the European Union on an information and communication technology (ICT) trade principle relating to authorizations and licences (S/C/W/348) and by Australia on three further ICT trade principles for consideration (S/C/W/349).

A public workshop was organized to examine services-related issues for the development of e-commerce on 17 and 18 June 2013 under the auspices of the Council for Trade in Services. The workshop featured representatives from international organizations, the private sector, government ministries and regulatory agencies.

Similarly, a number of initiatives on e-commerce were undertaken in the Committee on Trade and Development, in line with the 2011 Ministerial Decision on E-commerce. Following the proposal by Ecuador and Cuba (WT/COMTD/W/189) and the Committee's formal approval, a Workshop on E-Commerce, Development and SMEs was held on 8 and 9 April 2013. Prior to that workshop, the WTO Secretariat prepared a background document entitled “Electronic Commerce, Development and Small, Medium-Sized Enterprises” (WT/COMTD/W/193). The workshop brought together experts from international organizations, business, civil society and academia and heard personal experiences of representatives from small and medium-sized enterprises as well as from regulators in developing countries and least-developed countries. A detailed report of the workshop is contained in document WT/COMTD/W/198.

In the Council for Trade in Goods, several issues were discussed in 2012. These included the moratorium and the importance of keeping the electronic delivery of digital products free of customs duties, the relationship between e-commerce and development and the full participation of developing countries and least-developed countries in e-commerce as a means to combat poverty. In 2013, WTO members reiterated their support for the reinvigoration of the Work Programme and welcomed the two workshops held under the auspices of the Committee on Trade and Development and the Council for Trade in Services. They welcomed the positive results of these workshops which contributed towards identifying some non-tariff barriers and other elements having an impact on trade in goods.

In a series of meetings in July, September and October 2013, members discussed the content of a draft decision to be sent to ministers at the Ninth Ministerial Conference.


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