Pressure builds for WTO discussions on e-commerce, MSMEs

Major industrialized nations and some developing ones as well seem determined to secure outcomes on these two issues despite opposition from many, including India


Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Geneva: Attempts to steamroll discussions on two controversial issues—rules for electronic commerce and frameworks for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs)—at the World Trade Organization (WTO) are gaining pace, despite opposition from a majority of developing countries, including India.

In two separate proposals, reviewed by Mint, proponents have called for immediate discussions on ‘Inclusive Innovation and MSME Collaboration’, and issues concerning ‘electronic commerce and development’.

The proponents of these two proposals—major industrialized countries and some developing ones as well—seem determined to secure outcomes on these two issues at the WTO’s eleventh ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires later this year, according to several trade envoys who spoke to Mint.

The first proposal which was circulated by the US, the European Union, Japan, Switzerland and Australia on 10 February calls for an appropriate intellectual property framework for MSMEs to share their technologies in global value chains and contribute to innovation.

In their role as “entrepreneurs, start-ups, businesses, researchers and investors”, according to the proposal, MSMEs “rely on intellectual property frameworks that are able to protect expressions of new ideas, inventions, provide economic benefits and promote follow-on innovation”.

Under the title, ‘Intellectual Property and Innovation: Inclusive Innovation and MSME Collaboration’, the five sponsors argued that MSMEs require “transparent and predictable intellectual property rules” for transfer, sharing and creation of knowledge, ideas, or technology. Since intellectual property rules “provide a framework for the ownership, protection and use of ideas and information created through a partnership”, the WTO members must share their specific national experiences of “inclusive innovation and MSME collaboration; in particular, how intellectual property frameworks and innovation policy or programs have assisted MSMEs,” the US, the EU, Japan, Switzerland, and Australia argued.

“The proposal by the five major industrialized countries is an attempt to bring MSMEs in through the back door and tighten IPR (intellectual property rights) provisions at the WTO, despite opposition from a large majority of developing and least-developed countries, including India,” said a developing country trade envoy who asked not to be quoted.

Without addressing the core developmental issues in global trade, the sponsors wanted to hijack the negotiations, the envoy added.

The second proposal, floated by 14 developing countries, called for kick-starting discussions on “electronic commerce and development” at the WTO. The two-page proposal, circulated on 14 February, suggested four issues for immediate discussions—“trade facilitation and e-commerce”, “infrastructure gaps to enable e-commerce”, “access to payment solutions” and “online security”.

Last year, a majority of developing countries, including India, insisted that discussions on e-commerce must take place on the basis of the 1998 ‘Work Programme on Electronic Commerce’, under which members must first examine “all trade-related issues relating to global electronic commerce”.

In the face of “digital divide” and “knowledge gap”, the developing and poorest countries argued that there should not be any move to launch negotiations on e-commerce at this juncture.

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