Stiff resistance from African nations led by Morocco forced a deferment of the negotiations on rules for electronic commerce/digital trade at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Tuesday.

According to several participants familiar with the developments at the meeting, the African countries accused “powerful countries" of shifting focus away from outstanding Doha issues.

“The Africa Group (of 54 countries) is guided by the Nairobi Ministerial Declaration, (in which) ministers agreed to prioritize work on the outstanding Doha issues, such as Agriculture Trade Distorting Domestic Support, SSM (Special Safeguard Mechanism), Public Stockholding for Food Security, Cotton, LDC (least-developed countries) priorities, TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Properties) and last but not least Development and S&DT (special and differential treatment)- we are yet to see the same momentum, breadth and scope of attention as has been accorded to e-commerce," the representative for Morocco said on behalf of all African countries at a special dedicated thematic session on facilitating e-commerce and e-commerce for development.

Ambassador Alfredo Suescum of Panama, who convened the session as the Friend of the WTO’s General Council’s chair to discuss proposals tabled by the US, the European Union, Canada, and several other countries, was forced to suspend the meeting following protests by several members of the Africa Group such as Uganda, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and South Africa among others.

The African countries told Ambassador Suescum that he has no mandate on procedural grounds for discussing thematic or negotiating issues concerning e-commerce under the 1998 work program on e-commerce as well as the Nairobi ministerial decision of December, 2015.

The Nairobi ministerial decision required members to continue the work on electronic commerce “based on the existing mandate (1998 work program on e-commerce) and guidelines and on the basis of proposals submitted by Members in the relevant WTO bodies (such as Council for Trade in Goods, Council for Trade in Services, Council for Trade and Development, and TRIPS Council)."

India, Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela among others supported the African Group and urged Ambassador Suescum to sort out the procedural issues before discussing any substantive aspects concerning e-commerce/digital trade, according to participants who took part in the meeting.

The principal concern raised by members related to Ambassador Suescum adopting a thematic approach that was not the product of any consensus.

But the European Union, Canada, Singapore, Taipei, and Pakistan among others supported the Chair’s efforts to discuss their proposals, including e-commerce and development.

China said that any discussion on e-commerce should not result in any new market access obligations and it should avoid controversial issues such as cross-border data flows and data localization requirements that would elude consensus in the short term.

The US wants “prohibiting digital customs duties", “enabling cross-border data flows", “promoting a free and open Internet", “preventing localization barriers", “barring forced technology transfers", “protecting critical source code" and so on.

The concept of “preventing localization barriers" raised by the US in a non-paper, for example, states that “companies and digital entrepreneurs relying on cloud computing and delivering Internet-based products and services should not need to build physical infrastructure and expensive data centres in every country they seek to serve."

On Monday (17 October), the US trade representative ambassador Michael Froman made a strong case for removal of localization barriers by not imposing national clouds on e-commerce, during a lecture he delivered at the Geneva Graduate Centre.

More crucially, the resistance from Africa comes at a time when the US and its partners are going to make a concerted bid at a mini-ministerial summit in Oslo on Friday where they want to force e-commerce as a major deliverable at the WTO’s 11th ministerial meeting next year.