WATCH THIS SPACE ...Geneva - 2011
Other WTO Ministerials:
Geneva 30 Nov. - 2 Dec. 2009
Hong Kong 13–18 Dec 2005
> Cancún 10–14 Sept. 2003
> Doha 9–14 Nov. 2001
> Seattle 30 Nov.–3 Dec. 1999
> Geneva 18 & 20 May 1998
> Singapore 9–13 Dec. 1996


Briefing note: Electronic commerce

A new area of trade involves goods crossing borders electronically. Broadly speaking, this is the production, advertising, sale and distribution of products via telecommunications networks. The most obvious examples of products distributed electronically are books, music and videos transmitted down telephone lines or through the Internet.

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 electronic commerce. The General Council adopted the plan for this work programme on 25 September 1998, initiating discussions on issues of electronic commerce and trade by the Goods, Services and TRIPS (intellectual property) Councils and the Trade and Development Committee.

In the meantime, WTO members also agreed to continue their current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions. Ministers are expected to extend this moratorium at the 2011 Conference.


The work programme

The WTO Work Programme on Electronic Commerce covers all issues related to trade arising from global electronic commerce, including the economic, financial and development needs of developing countries.

At the Seventh Ministerial Conference in Geneva in December 2009, Ministers agreed to reinvigorate the Work Programme. They instructed the General Council to hold periodic reviews of the progress on the Work Programme, which it did in July and December 2010, and July 2011.


Recent discussions

Since the 2009 Geneva Ministerial Conference, a number of initiatives under the Work Programme were undertaken in the Council for Trade in Services. 

In response to a request by the United States in May 2011, the Secretariat produced a compilation of elements related to the electronic supply of services drawn from 23 Secretariat Background Notes issued on a number of sectors and modes of supply, as well as on statistics on trade flows in services (JOB/SERV/78).

In July, the European Union and the United States made a joint proposal (S/C/W/338) on trade-related principles to support the expansion of information and communication technology (ICT) networks and services and to enhance the development of e-commerce.  In September 2011, the United States also submitted a communication (S/C/W/339) entitled “Work Program on Electronic Commerce:  Ensuring that trade rules support innovative advances in computer applications and platforms, such as mobile applications and the provision of cloud computing services”.

Five members (Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela) made a joint submission to the General Council, the Council for Trade in Goods and the Committee on Trade and Development (triple-symbol document (WT/GC/W/635, G/C/W/650, WT/COMTD/W/179) entitled “Effective Participation of Developing Countries in Electronic Commerce as a Means to Combat Poverty”.  The submission also contained a proposal for a decision on electronic commerce by Ministers at the Eighth Ministerial Conference.

In a series of meetings in October and November 2011, members discussed the content of a draft decision to be sent to ministers. Deputy Director-General Harsha Singh chaired the discussions on behalf of the General Council chairperson.


Draft decision

Members have agreed on the following draft decision, which is expected to be adopted at the Eighth Ministerial Conference:

“Recalling the “Work Programme on Electronic Commerce” adopted on 25 September 1998 (WT/L/274), and pursuant to the mandate assigned by Members in the Seventh Session of the Ministerial Conference (WT/L/782) to intensively reinvigorate that work with a view to the adoption of decisions on that subject at its next session, to be held in 2011,


To continue the reinvigoration of the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce, based on its existing mandate and guidelines and on the basis of proposals submitted by Members, including the development-related issues under the Work Programme and the discussions on the trade treatment, inter alia, of electronically delivered software, and to adhere to the basic principles of the WTO, including non-discrimination, predictability and transparency, in order to enhance internet connectivity and access to all information and telecommunications technologies and public internet sites, for the growth of electronic commerce, with special consideration in developing countries, and particularly in least-developed country Members.  The Work Programme shall also examine access to electronic commerce by micro, small and medium sized enterprises, including small producers and suppliers,

To instruct the General Council to emphasize and reinvigorate the development dimension in the Work Programme particularly through the CTD to examine and monitor development-related issues such as technical assistance, capacity building, and the facilitation of access to electronic commerce by micro, small and medium sized enterprises, including small producers and suppliers, of developing countries and particularly of least-developed country Members.  Further, any relevant body of the Work Programme may explore appropriate mechanisms to address the relationship between electronic commerce and development in a focused and comprehensive manner,

To further instruct the General Council to hold periodic reviews in its sessions of July and December 2012 and July 2013, based on the reports submitted by the WTO bodies entrusted with the implementation of the Work Programme, to assess its progress and consider any recommendations on possible measures related to electronic commerce in the next session of the Ministerial Conference,

We decide that Members will maintain the current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until our next session, which we have decided to hold in 2013.”