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WTO’s E-Commerce Negotiations Offer Key Opportunity to Modernize Global Trade Rules

Earlier this month, ITI traveled to Geneva to participate in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) E-Commerce Week, and to meet with a range of trade officials from various governments. When it comes to e-commerce, there is plenty to discuss in Geneva. In just a few weeks, nearly 80 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – from every region of the world – will gather to develop international trade rules that could define how global commerce is conducted in the 21st century. These upcoming negotiations on e-commerce represent a positive, timely, and necessary step forward for the WTO, and for the larger conversation regarding the role of data in global trade. As stakeholders prepare for these discussions, ITI and its members remain committed to working with all WTO members to secure high-standard trade commitments that promote inclusive innovation, growth, and development.

Companies in all industries now rely on a vast array of digital technologies to produce, export, market, and sell goods and services. Underpinning these activities are the increasing flows of data across borders that have created economic opportunities for billions of people. Across the globe, digital trade is enabling firms big and small to grow and access international markets by using digital tools like data analytics, platforms, electronic payment systems, and web-based messaging tools – all with minimal cross-border investment.

Cross-border data flows have increased global GDP by at least 10 percent, adding $7.8 trillion to the global economy in 2014 alone. And while trends in digital trade may have begun in developed countries, emerging economies now account for 38 percent of global data flows. Information and communications technology services exports represent nearly half of all services exports from a range of emerging economies – significantly more than for countries in higher income groups.

Despite these advances, commitments in trade agreements have not kept up with the rapid pace of change in global trade. For example, it’s not clear to what extent current WTO rules protect a company’s ability to move data across borders, and companies are increasingly caught between conflicting national laws on a variety of issues. Some countries are beginning to enact rules involving data and digital platforms and services in ways that restrict access to the kinds of digital tools mentioned above and that discriminate against foreign firms. Restrictive data policies reduce exports and foreign investment and can raise the cost of accessing productivity-enhancing digital services for local firms by as much as 60 percent. These concerns demonstrate the need for strong trade tools. Negotiations at the WTO should craft rules that enable strong data protection and economic growth, while preventing the emergence of new and harmful classes of protectionist barriers.

As with any international negotiation, upcoming WTO deliberations in Geneva won’t come without challenges. Industry has a role to play in informing conversations on how individuals and companies use data and technology. At ITI, we see the far-reaching social and economic benefits that new commitments on e-commerce in the WTO can provide for the global economy. We look forward to staying engaged with all participants in the negotiations to develop digital trade rules that are high-standard, well-understood, and inclusive of the widest possible range of WTO members.

Public Policy Tags: Trade & Investment