Negotiations on regulating e-commerce face stagnation at the WTO

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On 3 May, the European Union published its text proposal on future rules and obligations on e-commerce as part of WTO negotiations on e-commerce endorsed by Ministers in the margins of the Davos World Economic Forum in January 2019, when a group of 76 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including the EU, had decided to launch   negotiations  that should result in a multilateral legal framework that consumers and businesses could rely on to make it easier and safer to buy, sell and do business online.

The proposal of the European Union therefore comes as a response to the lack of multilateral rules in the rapidly-increasing area of digital trade. For many years, businesses and consumers have indeed been relying on a patchwork of bilateral and regional rules and need a global framework. The nine-page EU proposal is part of its commitment to transparency and inclusiveness in development of its trade policy and would aim to strengthen consumer confidence in online transactions, keep internet access open, and shield traders from attempts to restrict data flows or seize their data and source code. Moreover, the rules proposed by the EU would guarantee the validity of e-contracts and e-signatures, strengthen consumers’ trust in the online environment, introduce measures to effectively combat spam, tackle barriers that prevent cross-border sales and permanently ban customs duties on electronic transmissions. A group of interested WTO Members held a first meeting on 6 March to agree on the process for WTO e-commerce negotiations.

However, almost all past attempts at writing new global trade rules have failed due to a lack of consensus at the organization, and reformers have increasingly aimed for critical mass of a subset of members instead. India has declined to take part in the e-commerce talks, while China has joined with a caveat: rules on data flows must be “subject to the precondition of security”. The WTO negotiations on regulating e-commerce are likely to be long and hard.

The EU proposal will be discussed along proposals from other participating WTO members during meetings planned from 13 to 15 May in Geneva. More information regarding the EU proposal is available on the website of the DG Trade of the European Commission.

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