Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Jan18/01)
3 January 2018
Third World Network
United Nations: Internet experts & trade negotiators working in
Published in SUNS #8603 dated 26 December 2017
Geneva, 22 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan*) - The Internet Governance
Forum, meeting at the UN Offices in Geneva this week, had a discussion
on the World Trade Organisation and discussions there on E-commerce.
In summing up the discussions in a news summary at its website, the
UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has said that although
trade negotiators and Internet experts increasingly work on similar
e-commerce issues, such as data flows, "they do so in silos."
"A bridge between them needs to be built."
UNCTAD said: "As the Internet has evolved from "the information
superhighway" to a platform where people and companies increasingly
do business, governments have tried to use international trade agreements
to regulate a growing number of issues related to online commerce,
without fully understanding how the web works and is governed, the
Internet Governance Forum heard this week in Geneva, Switzerland.
"Experts and policymakers expressed concern with the trend, saying
that trade negotiations limit the Internet to the commercial activities
it facilitates, whereas the web's value lies also in the way people
use it to express and exchange political, social and cultural ideas.
"In fact, many issues related to e-commerce, such as the flow
of data across borders, hit on non-economic concerns because they
affect, for example, people's right to privacy.
"The worry is that the trade process could go forward on an intergovernmental
basis with people who are skilled at trade negotiations but who are
not deeply embedded in a holistic understanding of the Internet...
as a fundamental catalytic force for socio-economic development,"
said William Drake, an international fellow and lecturer at the University
of Zurich, Switzerland.
"Either way, it's clear the trade community is looking to move
further toward establishing binding treaty-based obligations regarding
commerce over the Internet and the flow of information and data,"
Mr. Drake said.
Tracing efforts at e-commerce regulations via trade agreements, UNCTAD
noted (in summing up the discussions at the IGF), in 2003, Singapore
and Australia signed one of the first free trade agreements with a
full chapter on e-commerce. Since then more and more agreements -
including the mega Trans-Pacific-Partnership - have included legal
provisions on issues such as cybersecurity, net neutrality, online
intellectual property protection, and data localization, which sets
stringent criteria for transferring citizens' information across borders.
As these topics become part of trade negotiations, they become another
card in the game of swapping concessions as countries try to gain
access to new markets.
The European Union, for example, has strict data-protection rules
but is close to concluding a deal with Japan that would build on their
recent free trade agreement and allow businesses to seamlessly transfer
personal data between Brussels and Tokyo.
Similar provisions, which could have a lasting effect on how the Internet
is governed, are part of important ongoing deals like the Trade in
Services Agreement (TiSA) and the renegotiation of the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
"People in [the Internet] community have become increasingly
critical of what's going on in the trade community," Mr. Drake
said, adding that the criticisms concern the process as much as the
Because trade agreements often bring together developed and developing
economies, the fear is that economic and politically stronger nations
could use binding obligations on e-commerce to challenge other governments'
Internet rules and policies as trade barriers.
Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive
Communications, said that in trade negotiations involving least developed
countries, for example, data protection is usually considered from
the perspective of large multinational companies' interests, not the
needs of citizens.
The closed nature of trade negotiations has become widely critiqued
among the Internet community.
"Governments will always tell you... that you can't do the trading
of concessions for market access in an open public space. That, you
know, if Country A is saying "I will open my market and financial
services in exchange for access to your market in bananas", you
don't want to do that in public," Mr. Drake said.
But such negotiations are not closed to all non-state actors, and
those critical of international trade talks say big companies find
ways to exert influence over the outcomes, while other stakeholders,
such as non-governmental organizations, are denied a seat at the table.
"We had the recent issue of civil society being excluded in Buenos
Aires," Ms. Esterhuysen said, referring to the World Trade Organization's
(WTO) Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11), which wrapped up last
week in the Argentine capital.
"When there are e-commerce negotiations or discussions or policy
development, it tends to be very limited... the people who are looking
for economic opportunities through the digital economy are not at
the table," she said.
According to Torbjorn Fredriksson, who steers UNCTAD's work on information
and communication technology policy, part of the problem is a "culture
clash" between how the trade and internet communities work.
"One of the cultural clashes here is that trade negotiations
are very much done in a government-to-government, state-to-state fashion,
whereas the Internet governance discussion and policy developments
are much more multi-stakeholder," Mr. Fredriksson said.
At Internet governance forums, such as the one convening in Geneva
this week, civil society representatives sit next to people who represent
multi-billion-dollar corporations and some of the world's most powerful
And the processes and discussions are done in a very transparent manner,
often broadcast for the world to see.
"This is really fundamentally very different from what goes on
in the trade world," Mr. Drake said.
As a result, the two communities have increasingly worked in "silos",
with limited communication.
Mr. Fredriksson said: "Mostly when we meet at the [Internet Governance
Forum], we have a lot of Internet policy expertise in the room. Maybe
not so much trade policy expertise in the room. And when we were last
week in Buenos Aires for the WTO ministerial conference, we had lots
of trade policy expertise but not so many people representing the
This scenario is unfortunate for the Internet and for trade, participants
"Very often it's almost a clash of those who are looking to strengthen
rules and those who are very much against trade rules or against trade
agreements," said Marietje Schaake, a member of the European
"And I think it's unfortunate because I frankly see a lot of
potential... from a stronger cooperation between people in the tech
specific world and internet governance community, and in the trade
world," Ms. Schaake said, adding that it's high time to build
bridges between the two communities.
Data localization, Mr. Drake said, could be a good place to start
a joint conversation because this is an issue where both communities
could find common ground.
Internet experts want to ensure that trade agreements aren't used
to challenge privacy protection for commercial purposes. But like
trade officials, they also worry about the damage that unjustified
restrictions on cross-border data flows could do to Internet openness.
This year's UNCTAD Information Economy Report suggests three parallel
tracks to bridge the gap between the two worlds.
The first track would focus on strengthening the role of non-treaty-making
intergovernmental forums, where trade officials and Internet experts
could work together on "soft law" declarative statements,
free from the immediate pressure of trade negotiations.
Such work has begun within certain forums, such as the Group of Seven
(G7), the Group of Twenty (G20), and the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD), but could benefit from greater
consistency and coordination, the report says.
The second track would promote more inclusive dialogue in intergovernmental
processes, to pave the way to broader consensus on e-commerce issues,
which would ultimately give greater political legitimacy and support
for the final decisions that governments adopt.
This could be done through a two-tier, concentric circles model, the
report says, which would increase the inclusiveness of the processes
while allowing governments to retain the last word on final decisions.
The inner circle would include experts from both communities working
on an equal footing to develop a clearer picture of the costs and
benefits of different policy approaches.
And the outer circle would comprise a broader range of interested
stakeholders, with online platforms providing public access to documents,
reports and consultations.
Participants said that UNCTAD would be a relevant organization to
provide face-to-face encounters between the two communities, for example,
through its E-Commerce Week, and its new Intergovernmental Group of
Experts on E-Commerce and the Digital Economy.
"I would also like to pay tribute to the work UNCTAD does actually
bringing people from those communities together, more than I think
any other institution I deal with. And I deal with every single institution
in Geneva," said Julian Braithwaite, the United Kingdom's ambassador
to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva.
The third, most progressive track aims to make trade policy negotiations
more open, and allow Internet community representatives to track the
proceedings' broad developments and contribute their perspectives
and experiences, ultimately increasing their buy-in of Internet-related
Such an approach may be unfolding among some WTO members, Ambassador
Braithwaite said. Although no outcome on e-commerce was reached in
Argentina, 70 member countries -- including more than 20 developing
economies -- signed a joint statement expressing their intent to look
at what trade rules should underpin online transactions, but to do
so in a flexible way.
He said that one of the group's founding principles should be to work
in a way "that brings in actually those very same stakeholders
that have been so essential in the development of the Internet today".
[* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Editor Emeritus of the SUNS.]