TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (May20/03)
5 May 2020
Third World Network

E-com proposals at WTO a recipe for corporate greed
Published in SUNS #9112 dated 4 May 2020

Geneva, 30 Apr (Kanaga Raja) – The proposals for a WTO agreement on e-commerce, which are currently on hold, would further exacerbate inequality and division at a time when the world needs to work as one, according to a new report.

The report, commissioned by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and authored by the New Economics Foundation, was released during the virtual “e-week” convened by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

“Digital technology holds enormous potential for tackling the world’s most pressing problems on climate, poverty, inequality, health, education and much more. It has a massive role to play in tackling the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its consequences,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

“It is now even more important that governments focus their efforts on harnessing technology for the common good, rather than simply being conduits for an agenda that would entrench corporate power and deepen inequality and mistrust.”

“Governments are promoting new rules that would further reduce their own authority to regulate in the interests of people, to the extent that they are behaving more as captives of corporations, including giant tech monopolies, than as guardians of the public interest”, she added.

“Control of data is at the heart of the proposals, and through that control of data, the power of digital behemoths, such as Amazon, would reach new heights. Their power is already far-reaching, due to the failure of governments to apply competition policy to prevent them dominating markets.”

“This market dominance is set to grow even more if governments fail to ensure that the role tech companies play in the COVID-19 crisis in digital tracing and many other areas is done in the public interest with full respect for rights, instead of on the companies’ terms. Proposals for a new agreement on this basis should be shelved, and clauses in existing agreements should be revised,” said Burrow.

According to the report, titled “e-Commerce Free Trade Agreements, Digital Chapters and the Impact on Labour”, the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference may have ended without the adoption of a declaration, but a small number of initiatives were announced.

One of them, which announced the intention to start negotiations on e-commerce, came from a group of 70 Members, mostly developed countries.

The group was joined by six more countries, and in January 2019 the Members launched plurilateral e-commerce negotiations in the WTO, even though there is no WTO-wide mandate to do so, since a large group of developing countries managed to block the launch of official new negotiations on digital trade.

The aim of the plurilateral negotiations is to agree to digital trade provisions that would ensure digital sub-ordinance of small enterprises, a grave shift in the balance of bargaining power between capital and labour, and limited space for developing countries to digitalise with their own strategies.

The e-commerce agreement would create a framework that disciplines our governments’ ability to regulate and enforce laws in cyberspace, said the report.

It noted that the importance of e-commerce has grown with the development and expansion of the speed and reach of digital networks.

In 2019, retail e-commerce sales worldwide amounted to $3.53 trillion and e-retail revenues are projected to grow to $6.54 trillion in 2022.

And just as digital is now permeating ever more sectors, the chapters in free trade agreements have also expanded to deal with many issues that are way beyond the original scope of facilitating trade over the internet.

For example, one of the most important new areas that is included in trade agreements is the demand for the free flow of data across borders. By including this in trade agreements, the aim is to help ensure that private ownership of data is the default and that transnational corporations should be able to freely move data around the world with minimal or no regulation, the report said.

“Locking in global rules at such an early stage of the development of the internet and digital trade would lock in a status quo which sees ownership and control of data tightly concentrated in the hands of a few corporations while leaving states unable to maximise the public good that comes from digital innovation,” it added.