Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec17/20)
12 December 2017
Third World Network
CSOs highlight dangers of pursuing e-com agenda in trade talks
Published in SUNS #8593 dated 11 December 2017
Geneva, 8 Dec (Kanaga Raja) - Several dozen civil society organisations
and individuals have issued a statement on the eve of the eleventh
WTO ministerial conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires underscoring the
procedural shortcomings and the substantive dangers involved in discussing
e-commerce issues in trade negotiations.
Grouped under the Just Net Coalition, a global network of civil society
actors committed to an open, free, just and equitable Internet, the
CSOs objected to critical issues related to the digital economy being
decided in negotiations with a primary "trade" framework.
They pointed out that such negotiations, whether in the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) or in free trade agreements (FTAs), could amongst
others threaten digital fundamental rights and freedoms, and result
in a take-over of much of Internet governance by the WTO or other
trade-oriented governance forums.
Among the organisational members of the Coalition are Asia Pacific
Forum on Women, Law and Development (Thailand); Bangladesh NGOs Network
for Radio and Communication (Bangladesh); Consumer Unity and Trust
Society (India); CODE-IP Trust (Kenya); Knowledge Commons (India);
Other News Association (Italy); IT for Change (India); Panos South
Asia (Global); Third World Network (Global); Instituto Del Tercer
Mundo (Uruguay); Association for Proper Internet Governance (Switzerland);
Arab NGO Network for Development (Lebanon); Action Aid (Global); Focus
on the Global South (Regional); and Development Alternatives with
Women for a New Era (Global).
The Coalition also comprises a host of individual members (see http://justnetcoalition.org)/.
In their statement issued on 7 December, the Coalition pointed out
that they have been among the 309 civil society organizations (letter
of global civil society sent to WTO members on 9 October) who have
called upon the member countries of the WTO to refrain from accepting
the proposals of some WTO members who are pushing a dangerous and
inappropriate new agenda under the disguising rubric of "e-commerce".
According to the Coalition, key provisions of the proposals which
are not acceptable from the point of view of important public interests
include: a prohibition of requirements to hold data locally; a prohibition
of otherwise regulating cross-border data transfers; a prohibition
of requiring a local presence for goods/service providers in the country;
and a prohibition of requiring open source software in government
The proposals also call for no border taxes on digital products, the
Furthermore, it is being proposed to effectively give the WTO jurisdiction
to adjudicate whether a national technology or data regulation was
"reasonable," "objective," "transparent,"
and "not more burdensome than necessary to ensure the quality
of the service."
The WTO's adjudication processes have historically tended to favour
commercial interests. And giving them a blanket supervision of technology/data
regulation may go against governments' obligation to ensure that services
are operated in public interest and respect human rights and freedoms,
the CSO statement argued.
In addition, discussions in the WTO and in so-called free trade agreement
(FTA) negotiations are neither transparent nor inclusive, thus resulting
in decisions that do not take into account the interests of all concerned
The processes are overly influenced by big business interests, it
The Coalition went on to highlight some procedural shortcomings as
well as the substantive dangers involved in discussing e-commerce
issues in trade negotiations.
According to the CSO statement, many of the organizations that consider
themselves to be part of a so-called "Internet Community"
are great champions for the principle that all Internet governance
topics should be discussed in open multi-stakeholder forums.
Yet many of these organizations are yet to use their considerable
influence to oppose the proposals to move the crucial discourse on
the future of the Internet and the digital realm as a whole to the
WTO with its trade-oriented framing of the issues.
"We are for this reason (again together with many others) calling
on the Internet Community to evaluate the WTO's degree of lack of
openness, transparency and inclusiveness, and to use their influence
with the various governments accordingly."
The CSOs emphasised there is no real advantage to be gained in negotiating
Internet-related matters in the World Trade Organization or doing
so behind the possibly even more opaque closed doors of bilateral
or plurilateral "Free Trade Agreement" (FTA) negotiations,
such as those for TiSA, TTIP, TPP, etc.
This is especially so at this stage when basic governance concepts
and frameworks for Internet and data have not been worked out at forums
more suited to do such preliminary work.
The CSOs said they have the impression that some of the people/organizations
involved in Internet governance discussions are, at least implicitly,
applying a syllogism along the following lines:
* It is acceptable that trade negotiations are secretive.
* Some Internet governance issues are related to trade.
* Therefore, it is acceptable to discuss some Internet governance
issues in trade negotiations, even if secretively, and non-inclusively.
From the Coalition's point of view, the major premise in the first
one is false: it is not acceptable that trade negotiations are not
open (see http://www.borderlex.eu/trade-policy-ngos-wont-satisfied-eu-transparency-push/
And here is a concrete example of the possible negative effects of
secret trade negotiations, said the Coalition.
One proposal that has been made would prevent governments from requiring
disclosure of source code. The actual proposed text could perhaps
be understood to prevent governments from procuring open source software.
Maybe that is not the intent of the proposal, but, if so, the language
should be changed to make it clear that there is no intent to prevent
the procurement of open source software.
But maybe the trade negotiators are not too well informed on technical
issues such as open source software. So, they would benefit from public
This itself is an important reason why the negotiations should not
be secret, the Coalition pointed out.
"Surely, we all agree that governments benefit from input from
all stakeholders," it said.
So, in the Coalition's view, the syllogism that applies here is:
* Secrecy in trade negotiations is not acceptable.
* WTO and FTAs are at present secretive and non-inclusive.
* Therefore, it is not acceptable at present to conduct negotiations
in the WTO or in FTAs, especially about issues of Internet governance
where a tradition of open and inclusive policy discussions has been
"We are aware of the fact that some people think that some level
of secrecy is needed in trade negotiations. But recall that trade
negotiations are supposed to be win-win: everybody is supposed to
be better off in the end."
However, the Coalition said, secrecy is not normally required in win-win
negotiations. Secrecy is often required in win-lose negotiations.
"So, it appears to us that the insistence on secrecy in trade
negotiations indicates that they are not win-win negotiations."
But if that is the case, they said, it is all the more reason to call
for openness: the public has the right to know what might be bargained
"Specifically, in our context, we have the right to know what,
if any, human rights (e.g. free speech, privacy, access, parity of
economic opportunities) are being bargained away."
The Coalition said it objects to critical issues related to the digital
economy being decided in negotiations with a primary "trade"
framing because such negotiations, whether in the WTO or in FTAs,
* Threaten our digital fundamental rights and freedoms;
* Result in a take-over of much of Internet governance by the WTO
or other trade-oriented governance forums;
* Trample economic and privacy rights;
* Lock out public oversight;
* Result in decisions that could harm development and threaten human
"It is axiomatic that human rights - civil and political as well
as social and economic - must not be bargained away for any reason,"
the Coalition underlined.
"Quite on the contrary, when it turns out that current arrangements
for the Internet and the digital economy do not result in these principles
being implemented and upheld in practice, these current arrangements
for the Internet and its governance must be changed."
But the changes must be inspired by respect for human rights, and
not driven primarily by the interests of big multinational corporations.
Internet and digital issues cannot be framed primarily from a "trade
perspective", said the Coalition.
"Yet what we see are efforts to block discussion on these issues
at globally inclusive policy making forums, and to allow, or even
encourage, them to be discussed and decided at trade governance venues
like the WTO which, again, are overly influenced by the interests
of big companies. We need Internet and data governance venues that
are open and inclusive of all, and represent public interest, covering
the full spectrum of social, economic, political and cultural interests."
This insight is at the heart of the demand for a people's Internet
or citizens' Internet, said the Coalition statement.
It noted that this has been articulated well at the recent Latin American
civil society meeting "Dialogues for a People's Internet: Our
America towards to the Internet Social Forum (Quito, September 27-29,
2017) and its regional "internet ciudadana" process (see
In particular, it is the people who bring the Internet to life and
give it content to create the digital economy.
"Therefore, it does not make sense for us, the people, to remain
simply as users of services that the big corporations of the sector
offer us, under their own conditions! We should be able to take part
in how the digital economy is developed, and we should have the real
power of decision over how our contributions are used."
Because of various technological developments, we are currently rapidly
entering a new phase: the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), of
the digital economy and artificial intelligence.
Mass data collection provides the main input and source of value of
this economy: data are used by those handling it, made usable for
others, and/or sold to advertisers without taking into consideration
that personal data are (in many countries) or should be governed by
personality rights, an inalienable and not a property right.
Yet our personal data are processed through algorithms, including
artificial intelligence, with the aim to influence and even control
ever more areas of our lives.
"They are prey for surveillance programmes, spying and cyber-wars.
Those who gather and control data concentrate power and wealth,"
the Coalition warned.
The big Internet corporations and security services take advantage
of regulatory vacuums (both national and international) in order to
impose their rules.
According to the Coalition, it is these regulatory vacuums that the
current WTO and other Free Trade Agreement proposals aim to lock in
by making it binding international law.
Under this regime, citizens are powerless to insure that their human
rights and freedoms are respected, exercised and effective; and they
are powerless to develop autonomous projects.
The Coalition noted that it was through awareness of this situation
that the initiative behind the Internet Social Forum (ISF) took shape,
as an autonomous world space of social and citizens' organizations
from diverse social sectors, to debate and seek answers to this situation.
It was agreed to do so under the umbrella of the process of the World
Social Forum, with its affirmation that "another world is possible"
in the face of the neoliberal proposition that "there are no
alternatives," the Coalition statement concluded.
[The full statement by the Coalition including various references
and hyperlinks can be found at: https://justnetcoalition.org/2017/Trade_negotiations.pdf