Geneva: India, China and several other developing countries have cautioned the US, the European Union (EU), Japan and Canada, among others, not to rewrite the mandate for the work programme on electronic commerce at the World Trade Organization (WTO), according to people familiar with the development.

Rich nations want to craft ambitious global trade rules when most developing countries are grappling with basic access and connectivity issues, India and others warned.

Over the past one month, the US, along with major industrialized and some developing countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Chile, have intensified efforts to frame an ambitious agenda for e-commerce that would be beneficial for their Internet industries.

These countries want to achieve a robust outcome on e-commerce disciplines at the WTO’s 11th ministerial meeting next year.

Early this month, the US circulated a non-paper on e-commerce/digital trade in which it called on WTO members to discuss issues such as scrapping customs duties on digital products, enabling cross-border data flows, preventing localization barriers, barring forced technology transfers, protecting critical source codes, ensuring technology choice and preserving market-driven standardization and global interoperability, recognizing conformity assessment procedures and so on.

The EU, along with Canada, Chile, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, South Korea, Mexico, Paraguay and Singapore issued a paper on 22 July for starting a discussion on a tentative list of all trade-related elements that are relevant for e-commerce.

The EU and its partners called for talks on e-commerce elements around clusters pertaining to regulatory frameworks, open markets, initiatives facilitating the development of e-commerce, and transparency of the multilateral trading system.

In response to the flurry of proposals from the US and other countries at a dedicated session on e-commerce on Tuesday, India said, “The work programme must be as per the e-commerce ministerial decision adopted in the tenth ministerial conference (in Nairobi over six months ago) under which members are required to continue the work based on the existing mandate and guidelines."

India maintained that the mandated e-commerce discussion should be based on the proposals tabled by the members in an exploratory and experience sharing mode without “any normative or prescriptive content or intent".

India said the existing mandate on e-commerce is a “non-negotiating one, and any decision to widen the mandate should be a conscious one and not be slipped in or automatically assumed".

Without mentioning the US proposal on several new issues, India said, “We need to be cautious regarding the scope of discussions covering issues which so far have not been included or discussed for tariff eliminations, conformity assessments, development of market-driven standardizations, e-procurement, and e-auctions."

In the context of the renewed efforts to frame a new mandate for e-commerce, India reminded the advanced nations that “most developing countries are grappling with basic access and connectivity issues such as providing uninterrupted power supply, improving patchy Internet connectivity and enhancing the bandwidth.

“Further, the growth of e-commerce has given birth to key challenges, including consumer protection, safety of online payments, the need to balance between free cross-border data flows and privacy concerns, and taxation of digital economy."

China maintained that e-commerce is a cross-cutting issue in which the development dimension must be at the centre of discussions. The US wants a permanent moratorium on customs duties and for preparing a work programme on electronic commerce, including cloud-computing and electronically delivered software.

“Cloud computing is a critical component for any e-commerce, and it is essential trade commitments reflect a high degree of openness for this service," the US had argued in a proposal submitted several months ago.

US firms such as Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp., and International Business Machines Corp. have the lion’s share in the cloud-computing business.

The existing moratorium also includes the current practice of not imposing customs duty on electronic transmissions until December 2017. The US and several other countries want a permanent moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions.

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