from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

The Global Trade Talks on the Digital Economy Nobody’s Talking About

A worker collects orders at Amazon's fulfilment centre in Rugeley, central England December 11, 2012. Phil Noble/Reuters

More than ninety countries are discussing the future of online trade and it's getting scant attention. 

September 13, 2018

A worker collects orders at Amazon's fulfilment centre in Rugeley, central England December 11, 2012. Phil Noble/Reuters
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Nick Ashton-Hart is the Geneva representative of the Digital Trade Network. You can follow him at @nashtonhart.

Trade has never been so newsworthy—almost entirely for the wrong reasons, thanks in large part to the Trump administration reprising ‘beggar thy neighbor’ trade policies. That makes the virtual invisibility of the digital trade talks in Geneva remarkable.

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World Trade Organization (WTO)

At last year’s WTO ministerial in Buenos Aires, seventy-one countries made a political declaration to launch a discussion on new global rules to facilitate the expansion of the digital economy in a way that is mutually beneficial to developed and developing countries. More than ninety countries routinely attend the monthly, two-day meetings. Most also send specialists from capitals, a sure sign that the talks are important. Moreover, thirteen written contributions have been made since March 2018, collectively representing forty countries—another sign of intense interest.

All the major economies (China didn’t sign up to the ministerial declaration but is a very active participant nevertheless), most of the G20, and many smaller states are taking part. Even some of the world’s poorest countries are making it a priority. The objective of these meetings is to get countries to agree to a list of topics that would form the basis for formal, intensive, and detailed trade talks in 2019. The ultimate end game for a number of countries are new rules related to digitally-enabled trade.

You would think that so active a conversation on such a broad array of economic subjects would result in trade policy experts in the private sector routinely meeting delegations to advocate their interests. In fact, the opposite is true: many delegations are surprised that entire economic sectors are not engaged despite the potential ramifications on their businesses. For example, almost half of the written submissions to the talks reference  financial services—yet officials say they cannot remember the last time a representative from a financial institution spoke to them about the specific needs for their sector. The private sector’s absence could be explained by the fact that their limited pool of experts are busy elsewhere trying to prevent a trade war or keep their companies out of escalating tariffs. The relative newness of the WTO talks could also explain their absence, and that many business groups have yet to catch up.  

WTO delegations in Geneva are looking at some of the world’s most important economic questions, such as

  • What can trade policy do to help narrow the digital divide?
  • How can trade rules help the spread of mobile financial services to close the financial inclusion gap? (almost 2 billion people do not have access to financial services)
  • What can trade policy do to foster consumer and business trust in purchasing goods and services across borders?
  • How can trade rules promote digital contracts, adoption of digital signatures and customs and logistics processes, and make trade finance easier to get and use, all to help SMEs trade more?

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World Trade Organization (WTO)

Countries large and small, developing and developed, are in need of specialist advice as they tackle these subjects. They need experts to explain the pros and cons of various proposals, what is missing from the proposals on the table now, and what could improve the value-addition of new or improved rules. They all know that they have to come to grips with the issues around digital trade. The process has a lot of enthusiasm and interest but for it to get to the next step—defining the contours of the issues that are likely to be at the core of negotiations for global trade rules for digital commerce—many private sector experts will need to be much more engaged. Ironically enough, civil society groups that are most skeptical of any global digital norms are well organised and far more active than their private sector counterparts.

The trade policy community needs and deserves the best advice both in Geneva and in national capitals as they work to answer these big questions. The answers could profoundly benefit not just commerce but everyone. But as I have so often heard from delegations—and I have often said it myself—if countries don’t understand what’s in it for their economies in adopting new rules to promote digital trade, they won’t take action.

Opportunities like this one do not come by very often in international affairs. It remains to be seen whether WTO members will seize the opportunity. With the end of the year fast approaching, it won’t take long to find out.  

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