E-Commerce: Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) Update

The importance of developing global digital trade rules has never been clearer. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation, bringing about a surge in online activities. E-commerce will be critical to the global economic recovery. The Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce (JSI) is an opportunity for the WTO to respond to this urgent need.

There has been encouraging progress in the JSI since negotiations were launched in 2019. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, co-conveners Australia, Japan and Singapore have ensured that work continues in virtual and hybrid formats. The number of participants in the initiative has grown to 86 WTO Members, collectively accounting for over 90 per cent of global trade and representing all major geographical regions and levels of development.

Consolidated Negotiating Text

JSI participants have developed a consolidated negotiating text that captures progress so far and will form the basis of the next stage of negotiations. The consolidated text was circulated among participants on 7 December 2020.

The consolidated text is based on Members’ proposals. These proposals cover the following themes:

  • enabling electronic commerce;
  • openness and e-commerce;
  • trust and e-commerce;
  • cross-cutting issues;
  • telecommunications;
  • market access; and
  • scope and general provisions.

We have been able to advance the negotiations, guided by the objective of achieving WTO-plus outcomes that deliver meaningful benefits for businesses and consumers. Highlights include the good progress made in small groups on issues such as e-signatures and authentication, paperless trading, customs duties on electronic transmissions, open government data, open internet access, consumer protection, spam and source code, among others. Proponents of services market access commitments have also developed a possible framework for negotiations on these issues.

Provisions that enable and promote the flow of data are key to a high standard and commercially meaningful outcome. Discussions on these issues are ongoing and will intensify from early 2021. Japan and Singapore hosted an information session on data flows and localisation rules in November 2020, involving negotiators and the private sector, to build better understanding and support for strong commitments.

Source: World Trade Organisation, 20 December 2020

Benefits and Drawbacks of the E-commerce Moratorium

India and South Africa circulated a communication to members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council, arguing that the WTO moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions has “catastrophic” impacts on developing countries’ economic growth, jobs, and the attainment of the SDGs. In another communication, a group of WTO members highlighted “the overall benefits” of duty-free electronic transmissions.

The WTO e-commerce moratorium, which bans countries from imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions, dates back to 1998 when ministers at the Second Ministerial Conference adopted the Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce, calling for the establishment of a work programme on e-commerce, which was adopted later that year. Since then, at every Ministerial Conference, WTO members have agreed “to maintain the current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions.”

The WTO Work Programme on Electronic Commerce defines “electronic commerce” as the “production, distribution, marketing, sale or delivery of goods and services by electronic means.” According to a recent WTO report, the enforcement of social distancing, lockdowns, and other measures to address the COVID‑19 pandemic resulted in an uptake in e-commerce, including online sales and streaming of videos and films.

In March 2020, India and South Africa circulated a communication, outlining the implications the moratorium has on developing countries, including: tariff revenue losses; impacts on industrialization; impacts on the use of digital technologies like 3D printing in manufacturing; as well as losses of other duties and charges. The countries argue that the moratorium is “equivalent to developing countries giving the digitally advanced countries duty-free access to [their] markets.”

According to a UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) article, in 2017 alone, the potential tariff revenue loss to developing countries due to the moratorium was USD 10 billion. The article further notes that removal of the moratorium could provide policy space for developing countries to regulate imports of electronic transmissions and generate annual tariff revenue of up to 40 times greater than that in developed countries.

communication from Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, China, Iceland, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, and Uruguay, circulated in June 2020, highlights a paper by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled, ‘Electronic Transmissions and International Trade: Shedding New Light on the Moratorium Debate.’ The members state that, according to the paper, “the overall benefits” of duty-free electronic transmissions “outweigh the potential forgone government revenues” due to the moratorium. The members recommend that these findings be considered in the current discussions on the extension of the moratorium.

A decision on whether or not the moratorium should continue will be taken at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12). Originally scheduled for June 2020, the Conference has been tentatively postponed until June 2021.

Source: SDG Knowledge Hub, 23 July 2020