E-commerce negotiations: Members finalise “clean text” on e-signatures and authentication

At a meeting on e-commerce negotiations held on 20 April, WTO members participating in the talks announced that a “clean” negotiating text on the issue of e-signatures and authentication has been finalised. The co-convenors of the talks — Australia, Japan and Singapore — commended members for their hard work and urged them to accelerate their efforts in order to meet deadlines fixed for this year. “We need to maintain the energy with which the group started this year,” they said.

The clean text on e-signatures and authentication seeks to ensure that the electronic signatures used in an online transaction are not denied their value or legal effect because they are submitted in electronic format. The facilitator of the small group discussion on this topic, Mrs Gintare Kemekliene (European Union), reported that the clean text is the result of the hard work and flexibility of members and derives from 11 proposals tabled by members at the start of the process.

The deadlines set by the co-convenors for this year include a total of ten clean texts on various issues by the summer break and  substantial progress at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), which will take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021 in Geneva. The text on e-signatures and authentication will be part of the outcome the e-commerce initiative seeks to deliver by MC12.

Ambassador George Mina (Australia), as co-convenor, commended members for arriving at a stable and clean text on electronic signatures and authentication. He said that the text is a fundamental element of e-commerce as it contributes to more efficient and more secure commerce and will promote digital trade and economic growth. The ability to avoid printing, mailing and filing of signatures and authentication in physical format when the rest of the transaction is done in the online environment is a massive boost to efficiency and productivity, he added.

Earlier this year, members finalised a clean text on unsolicited commercial messages, otherwise known as spam.

Ahead of the discussion on telecommunications services, Ambassador Hung Seng Tan (Singapore), a co-convener, said that telecommunications issues are wide-ranging and of significant interest to all members. He underlined that the telecommunications landscape is evolving rapidly and is one of the fundamental pillars supporting the digital economy. Having clear rules in this area will provide businesses with certainty and encourage digital adoption and innovation, he said.

Ambassador Tan added that it is timely for participating members to consider how to narrow the digital divide so that the e-commerce initiative can be helpful in driving economic growth for all members.

Reports from small group discussions

The facilitators of small group discussions reported on the work undertaken in the last few weeks to bridge differences on text proposals covering online consumer protection, paperless trading, open government data, source code, customs duties on electronic transmission, and open internet access. A new small group discussion was established recently on e-contracts and a report of the discussions was presented.

Members also revisited proposals on telecommunications services. The first proposal seeks to update the WTO Telecommunications Services Reference Paper – a document issued in 1996 covering regulatory principles on telecommunications services – to ensure that the disciplines cover the internet and the telecommunications services that shape the ecosystem of online commerce. The second proposal addresses the production, supply and treatment of e-commerce related network equipment and products, which are needed to facilitate online transactions. Members also discussed a proposal related to transparency in telecommunications services.

In his concluding remarks, co-convenor Kazuyuki Yamazaki (Japan) said that the e-commerce initiative will address data-related issues in the next meeting. He added that data is the life blood of e-commerce and it is crucial to deepen the discussion on data-related issues for the initiative to have a meaningful outcome. He also said that while the initiative is seeking to achieve a high standard, its objective is also to ensure the participation of as many WTO members as possible. It is important to understand the difficulties that developing countries are facing in the area of capacity-building and the digital divide, he noted.

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