WTO – Negotiations on e-commerce continue, eyeing a consolidated text by the end of the year

WTO members participating in the negotiation of rules on e-commerce shared updates on the work done to streamline the negotiating text at a plenary meeting on 23 October. The co-conveners, Australia, Japan and Singapore, encouraged members to propose constructive solutions and show flexibility in an effort to deliver a consolidated negotiating text by December this year.

Facilitators of small group discussions reported on the work done in between plenary meetings to further streamline text proposals in the areas of spam, source code, open government data, trade facilitation in goods, services market access, electronic signatures and authentication, and online consumer protection.

Participants also re-engaged on topics that had been scheduled for consideration in the postponed March and April-May negotiating rounds, namely protection of personal information/data.

The co-conveners set common principles for the small groups to make their work more efficient and consistent, noting that transparency and inclusion should guide their work. 

Ambassador George Mina (Australia), on behalf of the co-conveners, noted that reports from small groups are encouraging and that there is still some work that needs to be done. He said that the participating members are only two months away from the deadline for delivering a consolidated negotiating text and that the consolidated text should include “clean text” on e-signatures, authentication, spam and online consumer protection. To that end, he urged participants to engage with each other informally, not only in small groups but also bilaterally, and to show flexibility wherever possible. 

The co-conveners set 16 November as a deadline for any new proposals to be submitted by participating members.

Ambassador Mina highlighted that COVID-19 has increased the urgency of developing global rules on digital trade and that these negotiations are seen as a key test for the WTO to respond to modern commercial realities.  

WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce were launched in Davos in January 2019 with the participation of 76 members. The number of participating members now stands at 86. Participating 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. The e-commerce initiative was created on the margins of the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires. 

Throughout their negotiations of the several e-commerce related topics, members have been encouraged by the co-conveners to consider the unique opportunities and challenges faced by members, including developing countries and least-developed countries, as well as by small businesses. 

Ambassador Tan Hung Seng of Singapore, as a co-convener, encouraged members to propose constructive solutions as discussions intensify. He said that the initiative is well placed to swiftly develop something concrete that would benefit the global economy. 

Ambassador Kazuyuki Yamazaki of Japan, as a co-convener, said that it was important to make as much progress as possible, and for the consolidated text to be comprehensive in reflecting issues proposed by members. He also urged members to take a holistic approach to the work of the initiative and address more challenging issues. 

The co-conveners plan to hold ambassador level consultations to discuss and hear members’ views on the way forward between 28 and 30 October. The next plenary session will be on 5 November, during which an information session for members on data-related provisions will be hosted by Japan and Singapore.

Source: WTO, 23 October 2020

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