TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Jan19/09)
29 January 2019
Third World Network

Seventy-five countries confirm “intention” to start e-com pluri-talks

Published in SUNS #8833 dated 28 January 2019

Geneva, 25 Jan (Kanaga Raja) – A group of 75 Members of the World Trade Organisation announced on Friday (25 January) its “intention” to commence WTO negotiations on “trade-related aspects of electronic commerce”.

The Members made the announcement after a breakfast meeting (see separate story) on the sidelines of the annual jamboree of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, where prominent executives of Transnational Corporations and political personalities combine a week of talkathons, and skiing on the Swiss Mountains.

Soon after the announcement, almost instantaneously, the WTO published the joint statement on its website as a “communication” (WT/L/1056) from the 75 members.

The signatories to the joint statement include Albania; Argentina; Australia; Bahrain, Kingdom of; Brazil; Brunei Darussalam; Canada; Chile; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; El Salvador; European Union; Georgia; Honduras; Hong Kong, China; Iceland; Israel; Japan; Kazakhstan; Korea, Republic of; Kuwait, the State of; Lao PDR; Liechtenstein; Malaysia; Mexico; Moldova, Republic of; Mongolia; Montenegro; Myanmar; New Zealand; Nicaragua; Nigeria; Norway; Panama; Paraguay; Peru; Qatar; Russian Federation; Singapore; Switzerland; Chinese Taipei; Thailand; the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Turkey ; Ukraine; United Arab Emirates; United States; and Uruguay.

While many of the western media, in particular those toeing the official line of the dominant countries, carried news stories about “launching” of the e-commerce plurilateral negotiations, the statement spoke of “intention to commence” negotiations at the WTO.

The trade ministers representing these countries, in their joint statement, said:

“We confirm our INTENTION (emphasis added) to commence WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce.

“We will seek to achieve a high standard outcome that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks with the participation of as many WTO Members as possible.

“We recognise and will take into account the unique opportunities and challenges faced by Members, including developing countries and LDCs, as well as by micro, small and medium sized enterprises, in relation to electronic commerce.

“We continue to encourage all WTO Members to participate in order to further enhance the benefits of electronic commerce for businesses, consumers and the global economy.”

Meanwhile, in a press release, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) warned that new trade rules (on e-commerce) currently being tabled would place severe restrictions on governments’ ability to regulate in the interests of working people.

The proposals, which come under the banner of the “e-commerce agenda”, have far-reaching implications on the future world of work, said ITUC.

Referring to the announcement by a number of governments, predominantly from advanced economies, at Davos of their intention to launch trade negotiations on e-commerce, the ITUC said by launching these negotiations, they aim to consolidate market access for digital companies.

Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, and other online multi-national corporations stand to gain the most, it pointed out.

According to the ITUC press release, data governance issues are central to the proposed WTO expansion.

By guaranteeing the uninhibited flow of data across borders, they place major limitations on countries’ data sovereignty and on governments’ space for addressing abuses.

The proposed changes would introduce direct disciplines on public regulation-making and bar governments from requiring companies to open local offices and to host servers on their territory.

Without a local presence of companies, there is no entity to sue and the ability of domestic courts to enforce labour standards, as well as other rights, is fundamentally challenged, said ITUC.

“We have seen how the Ubers and the Amazons of this world exploit current loopholes to deteriorate the conditions of working people. Rather than facilitating this type of irresponsible behaviour, governments should redouble their efforts to close down these loopholes. The only answer is a new social contract with a universal labour guarantee,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC.

“The question is: what is our vision for the future? Digital and technological developments have had huge impacts on our lives, but so much is yet to come.”

“Do we want this future to be shaped by people’s interests, or by the interests of profit and big business?” Ms Burrow asked.