TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (May20/02)
4 May 2020
Third World Network

COVID-19: JSI group for exploring emerging e-com/digital trade issues
Published in SUNS #9112 dated 4 May 2020

Geneva, 30 Apr (D. Ravi Kanth) – The coordinators of the plurilateral Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) group on electronic commerce at the World Trade Organization have asked members to consider exploring emerging e-commerce/digital trade issues, that may involve new WTO obligations for developing countries, in view of the restrictions put in place to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three JSI coordinators – Australia, Japan, and Singapore – have deployed the services of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the Global Innovation Forum of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC, the US trade lobby) to accelerate discussions on several inter-related issues in e-commerce.

The WEF, for example, will focus on 1 May on “data policies and trade policies in a time of pandemic”, the ICC on electronic payment systems on 5 May, and the NFTC on “digital tools and Covid-19” on 6 May, according to an email sent by the JSI coordinators to WTO members last week.

“There should be no new binding commitments in the WTO as we do not know how long the pandemic will last, what impact it will have on various countries and what policies the countries will need to put in place,” said a person, familiar with efforts to develop a counter-narrative by developing countries.

Australia, Japan, and Singapore, which are propelling the JSI group’s e-commerce negotiations, said they intend to hold a series of webinars for focusing on these three issues.

During the first meeting on 1 May, the WEF, the protagonist of Big Business, will focus on “data policies and trade policies in a time of pandemic.”

The WEF argued that “digital services, often provided on a cross-border basis, are helping some populations cope with COVID-19 response measures.”

According to the WEF, “digital payments, cloud-based services, e-commerce, video-conference technologies, online classes and e-health have become part of daily life for many,” suggesting that “digital trade in services will also be a much-needed growth engine for countries amid looming economic recession, given ICT services alone grew at 11% annually in the last decade.”

The objectives of the WEF’s webinar are to:

1. provide topical information related to COVID-19 and data flows;

2. present a data flow governance architecture and identify current gaps;

3. highlight recommendations for ensuring open, trusted data flows in the new landscape.

On 5 May, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) will hold a session on “the role of digital or electronic payment services (EPS) in achieving important policy objectives, including advancing financial inclusion, expanding the formal economy, increasing remittances and disbursing public benefits.”

The ICC said “advancing these objectives assume even greater importance during exogenous shocks, such as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.”

“In such times,” ICC added, “global payment networks can be highly effective in ensuring money reaches those that need it the most.”

The ICC session will discuss “how access to a broad range of EPS enhances the resilience of economies in times of crisis.”

Finally, on 7 May, the NFTC’s Global Innovation Forum, in support of the Joint Statement Initiative on Electronic Commerce, will “explore how small businesses are using digital tools to adapt during the COVID-19 crisis.”

In another unrelated development, the US wants to press ahead with its illegal Special 301 measures regardless of the ravaging SARS-CoV-2 virus that has caused the highest death toll and rising number of new cases of COVID-19 in the US.

On 29 April, the US Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighhizer released the annual 301 report, which signaled the countries that could face trade measures due to lack of IPR protection.

“The Trump Administration is committed to holding intellectual property rights violators accountable and to ensuring that American innovators and creators have a full and fair opportunity to use and profit from their work,” said Lighthizer.

Despite the recent agreement with China, the USTR placed China in the Priority Watch List, along with India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Venezuela.

Washington raised the bar again for more changes in the IPR protection laws in the so-called Priority Watch List countries.

The USTR claimed that its Special 301 Report “identifies trading partners that do not adequately or effectively protect and enforce intellectual property (IP) rights or otherwise deny market access to US innovators and creators that rely on protection of their IP rights.”

Washington announced Out-of-Cycle Reviews for Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, while placing Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Vietnam on the Watch List.

The USTR threatened trading partners that they will be subjected to “increased bilateral engagement with USTR to address IP concerns.”

It will review the developments in the listed countries “against the benchmarks established in the Special 301 action plans for those countries.”

“For countries failing to address US concerns, USTR will take appropriate actions, which may include enforcement actions under Section 301 of the Trade Act or pursuant to World Trade Organization (WTO) or other trade agreement dispute settlement procedures,” the USTR said.