Co-convenors of e-commerce negotiations review progress, reflect on way forward

At a heads of delegation meeting on 6 July, participants in the e-commerce talks reaffirmed their commitment to a substantial conclusion of the negotiations by the end of 2023, with development issues at the heart of the future outcome. Flexibility, pragmatism and urgency are what is needed to achieve this goal, they stressed. Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told participants: “What you are currently accomplishing truly matters for the global economy, for development prospects, and for creating new job opportunities, especially for young people.”

DG Okonjo-Iweala added: “These negotiations are breaking new ground worldwide in that they are the first initiative to bring so many members to the negotiating table on such a comprehensive list of e-commerce-related issues. But I do want to sound a warning: you don’t have too much time. The developments in the digital area are going so fast.”

To date, the initiative has “parked” 11 provisions, including paperless trading, e-contracts, e-signatures, e-invoicing, spam, consumer protection, cybersecurity and an electronic transactions framework. The negotiators hope to bridge differences on other provisions, such as “single windows”, personal information and data protection, by the summer.

DG Okonjo-Iweala noted that it is important for the initiative to ensure that the benefits from e-commerce and growth in the digital economy are available to all.

The DG drew attention to uneven participation in some regions in the digital economy due to digital and regulatory divides. She said: “While e-commerce has helped small businesses, and especially women-owned firms, tap into international markets, there is a great deal of room to improve. Digital trade can be an even more effective economic lifeline for marginalized groups and geographically remote areas.”

Ambassador Hung Seng Tan of Singapore, co-convenor of the initiative and chair of the 2023 plenary meetings, noted the strong and positive momentum in the e-commerce negotiations. He stressed: “We need to keep our foot on the accelerator to meet our target of substantial conclusion by end-2023.”

Ambassador Tan also said that the negotiations on e-commerce are “systemically significant” as they ensure that the WTO remains relevant and show the determination of members to reinvigorate the rule-making function of the WTO.

He also noted the growing number of developing members participating in the initiative. This breadth of participation means that more markets will adopt similar standards and rules, promoting interoperability in an increasingly fragmented digital regulatory landscape, he said.

Ambassador George Mina of Australia encouraged members to emphasize the significance of the initiative on e-commerce with trade ministers and to ensure they are engaged not only in the economic aspects of it but also in the larger strategic significance of the initiative. He also stressed the importance of engaging senior officials in some of the negotiating challenges and said shifts in positions and flexibility on some key issues are needed.

Ambassador Kazuyuki Yamazaki of Japan said that development issues are very important for the co-convenors. They are ready to work with the facilitators of small group discussions and other members, including proponents, to achieve a commercially meaningful but inclusive outcome, he said. He added: “It would be indispensable to discuss those issues in order to achieve outcomes.”

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