E-commerce negotiations: Members finalise “clean text” on unsolicited commercial messages
At the first meeting of the year on e-commerce negotiations, held on 5 February, co-convenor Ambassador George Mina (Australia) commended WTO members for finalizing a clean negotiating text on the issue of unsolicited commercial messages, otherwise known as spam. Ambassador Mina said that 2021 is a critical year for the e-commerce initiative and stressed that members need to intensify the pace of talks to deliver on the goal of substantial progress by the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) due to take place this year.
The facilitator of the small group discussion on “spam”, Seojin Yang (Republic of Korea), reported that the group has finalised a clean text, which aims at minimising spam messages in e-commerce. This is the culmination of many months of hard work of the members involved, he said. Ambassador Mina hailed this is as a milestone in the negotiations. It is the result of members’ creativity, flexibility and efforts to strike a balance, he said.
Ambassador Mina said: “The Joint Initiative process is producing, and the work is advancing.” He noted that the consolidated text circulated in December 2020 demonstrated the extraordinary progress the initiative has made despite a very challenging year. He praised participating members and proponents for their hard work, creativity and flexibility.
Ambassador Mina said the public expects this negotiation, which aims to facilitate digital trade, to form an important part of the global economic recovery from COVID-19. He encouraged members to keep their eyes on the negotiating milestones they set for themselves.
In his opening remarks, Ambassador Kazuyuki Yamazaki (Japan), co-convenor of the initiative, reiterated the basic principles of the negotiations: openness, transparency and inclusiveness.
Ambassador Yamazaki stressed the importance of managing the negotiation process as efficiently as possible, particularly via the work of the small groups. He further highlighted the progress made on issues such as e-signature and e-authentication through the work of these groups and the facilitators. Looking ahead, he said there will be further areas to address in small group discussions.
Ambassador Yamazaki said that it is important to have intensified discussions in challenging areas such as data-related issues and market access in order to have a high-standard outcome. He stressed the importance of pursuing ministerial engagement in the run-up to MC12 as this would provide political impetus to accelerate and guide the negotiations.
Updates from small group discussions
The facilitators of small group discussions reported on the work undertaken in the past weeks to find common ground on proposals. The topics covered include online consumer protection, open government data, paperless trading and market access. The facilitators reported constructive conversations and encouraging progress to further streamline the negotiating text.
WTO members revisited the draft text on “facilitating electronic transactions”, which was last addressed a year ago. The text focuses on the establishment of legal frameworks at the domestic level to ensure non-discrimination and avoid regulatory burdens on e-commerce.
Members also exchanged views on the draft text covering electronic contracts. The text seeks to ensure that electronic contracts are not denied legal effect nor treated differently for having been made by electronic means.
Electronic invoicing was another topic for discussion. This relates to electronic versions of invoices for the sale of goods or the provision of services. Members exchanged views on a draft text regarding the facilitation of e-payment services and the treatment of service suppliers.
In his concluding remarks, Ambassador Hung Seng Tan (Singapore), co-convenor of the initiative, encouraged members to continue building on the momentum achieved so far. He urged the small groups to prioritize cleaning up issues that have been extensively dealt with so that the initiative can address other issues. He also said that the co-conveners are considering involving ministers to resolve particularly challenging issues where views of members are divided.
WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce were launched in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2019 with the participation of 76 members. The number of participating members now stands at 86. Participating members are seeking 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 negotiations are based on text proposals submitted by WTO members and are conducted through a combination of plenary, focus group and small group meetings. Currently, the discussions are covering six main themes: enabling e-commerce; openness and e-commerce; trust and e-commerce; cross-cutting issues; telecommunications; and market access.