WTO Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the digital economy’s importance, accelerated the digital transformation and heightened the need for global rules governing digital trade. As Co-convenors of the Joint Statement Initiative on Electronic Commerce, we are committed to responding to this challenge. This initiative will update the WTO rulebook in an area of critical importance to the global economy.

We recognise the importance of the digital economy in post-COVID-19 economic recovery. The digital economy offers enormous opportunities for developing Members and least-developed country (LDC) Members, including by lowering the costs for businesses, particularly MSMEs, to access and participate in global markets. WTO rules and commitments on digital trade can help unlock these opportunities.

In this context, we will continue to drive negotiations towards a high standard and commercially meaningful outcome building on existing WTO agreements and frameworks. We will continue to promote inclusiveness and encourage the participation of as many WTO Members as possible in the negotiations, which were launched in our January 2019 Ministerial statement.

We welcome the substantial progress made to date in the negotiations. We have achieved good convergence in negotiating groups on eight articles – online consumer protection; electronic signatures and authentication; unsolicited commercial electronic messages; open government data; electronic contracts; transparency; paperless trading; and open internet access. The outcomes already achieved in these areas will deliver important benefits including boosting consumer confidence and supporting businesses trading online.

In addition, we have seen the consolidation of text proposals in other areas, including on customs duties on electronic transmissions, cross-border data flows, data localisation, source code, electronic transactions frameworks, cybersecurity, and electronic invoicing, as well as advanced discussions on market access. We will intensify negotiations in these areas from early 2022. We note that provisions that enable and promote the flow of data are key to high standard and commercially meaningful outcome.

Participants in the initiative support the continuation of the multilateral e-commerce moratorium in fostering certainty and predictability for businesses. The co-convenors consider it crucial that the initiative makes permanent among participants the practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions.

We recognise the importance of supporting the engagement of developing Members and LDC Members in the initiative, including implementation of commitments. We will continue to deepen the discussion, including through a series of roundtables, dialogues and webinars, on capacity building options and support for implementation for developing Members and LDC Members in 2022.

In light of the strong progress that has been achieved to date, the co-convenors will arrange the JSI work programme to secure convergence on the majority of issues by the end of 2022. We will identify opportunities throughout 2022 for Ministers to provide guidance on key issues in the negotiations.

We look forward to working with all participating Members as we intensify the negotiations and work towards a successful conclusion.

The Hon Dan Tehan MP, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Australia

H.E. Mr HAYASHI Yoshimasa, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Japan
H.E. Mr HAGIUDA Koichi, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan H.E. Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Trade and Industry, Singapor
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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