The World of International Organizations

EU and 47 nations revive e-commerce talks

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo talks at a Davos session (AN/World Economic Forum)

Plans to establish new global rules for electronic commerce through the World Trade Organization are on again for the European Union and 47 nations.

The revival of WTO’s stalled negotiations on e-commerce emerged on the last day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss resort town of Davos. European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said it was encouraging to have so many trading partners join in.

“Electronic commerce is a reality in most corners of the world, so we owe it to our citizens and companies to provide a predictable, effective and safe online environment for trade,” she said. “We look forward to working with all interested WTO members, flexibly and pragmatically, to create a truly comprehensive and ambitious set of rules.”

Despite the exponential growth of domestic and cross-border electronic commerce in the past two decades, WTO has no specific multilateral rules regulating these electronic transactions, Malmström’s office said in a statement.

Business and consumers have until now followed a patchwork of rules from bilateral and regional trade agreements. New WTO rules for e-commerce could help industrialized and developing nations by providing a global legal framework that makes it easier and safer to conduct online business.

European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, center, speaking at a Davos session (ARÊTE/World Economic Forum)

Easing cross-border sales

The E.U. said the negotiating process would resume in March and that it would be open to any of WTO’s 164 member nations.

Along with the E.U., Australia, Japan and Singapore have been key players in kick-starting WTO talks towards creating a set of rules for e-commerce and cross-border data flows. The E.U. has long taken a strong interest in establishing such a regulatory framework, starting with its so-called “European initiative in electronic commerce,” published in 1997.

There were informal talks about starting WTO-sponsored negotiations on e-commerce during the past two years. The issue of global rules extending to authoritarian nations such as China, which have a high degree of government control over the flow of data, presents a particular challenge.

Organizers said the aim of the talks would be to create rules that boost consumer trust, reduce spam and, ultimately, make it easier for businesses to engage in cross-border sales.

Other topics include guarantees on the validity of e-contracts and e-signatures; banned customs duties on electronic transmissions; and forced data localization and disclosure of source code.

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