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Work programme

The growing importance of electronic commerce in global trade led the members of the WTO to adopt a declaration on global electronic commerce on 20 May 1998 at their Second Ministerial Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The declaration directed the General Council of the WTO to establish a comprehensive work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from electronic commerce, and to present a report on the progress of the work programme at the Third Ministerial Conference of the WTO. The declaration setting up the work programme included the statement that “members will continue their current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmission”. The work programme was adopted by the WTO General Council on 25 September 1998.

Under the work programme, issues related to electronic commerce were examined by the Council for Trade in Services, the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for TRIPS and the Committee on Trade and Development. During the course of the work programme a number of background notes on the issues were produced by the WTO Secretariat and many member governments submitted documents outlining their own thoughts. A seminar on “Government Facilitation of E-commerce for Development” was held 14 June 2001 under the auspices of WTO Committee on Trade and Development. Speakers from developing and developed countries, international organizations and the private sector addressed issues related to e-commerce and development. See the results of the seminar.

Each of the WTO bodies working on e-commerce issues have produced reports for the General Council on progress in their work programme. The following is a summary of the main points which emerge from these reports and from a dedicated discussion on e-commerce issues held under the auspices of the General Council on 15 June 2001:

  • Three types of on-line services transactions were identified:

  • Transactions for a service which is completed entirely on the Internet from selection to purchase and delivery.

  • Transactions involving “distribution services” in which a product, whether a good or a service, is selected and purchased on-line but delivered by conventional means.

  • Transactions involving the telecommunication transport function, including provision of Internet services.

  • The vast majority of on-line services transactions are considered services which are covered by the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

  • WTO member governments hold the general view that the GATS does not distinguish between technological means of supplying a service.

  • The general view of member governments is that the provisions of the GATS apply to the supply of services through electronic means.

  • A difference of views has emerged with respect to whether certain products (e.g. software and books) when delivered electronically should be classified as goods or services. Such products, until relatively recently, had been delivered through conventional means whereby they were contained in a physical carrier and classified and regulated as goods. The question now arises as to whether such products, when delivered electronically, should still be treated as goods and therefore subject to the rules of the GATT or, should they be classified as services and be subject to the framework of the GATS. In either case, members of the WTO would need to take a decision with respect to these products.

  • Questions are raised about how the Telecommunications annex of the GATS should relate to access to and use of Internet access services. Many Internet service providers (ISPs) and services may benefit from the Annex provisions ensuring fair and reasonable access to the leased circuits they obtain from pubic telecom operators. But some member governments wonder if, or to what extent, ISPs themselves should be obliged by the Annex to offer such access to others.

Copies of the reports to the General Council by the Council for Trade in Services, the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for TRIPS and the Committee on Trade and Development are available on the electronic commerce page of this site.