DG Azevêdo: The conversation on digital trade and e-commerce concerns us all

2 April 2019


Speaking at a session entitled “Global regulation of digital trade and e-commerce: What is needed?” organized by the Danish Government on 1 April during UNCTAD’s e-commerce week, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo (pictures below) said it is clear that e-commerce can unleash great potential but there needs to be awareness of the challenges involved in areas such as connectivity and infrastructure.


He said: “We must be ready to learn from each other, so as to better understand what kind of policy framework would be conducive to an e-commerce environment that benefits everyone”. This is what he said:

State Secretary Susanne Hyldelund,
Secretary-General Kituyi,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning.

It's a pleasure to join you today.

I would like to thank the Danish Government for the kind invitation and for their leadership in organising today's discussion.

This conversation on digital trade and e-commerce concerns us all. The internet and new technologies are having a major impact on our lives – in ways we couldn't have dreamed of just a few years ago.

So it should be no surprise that they are also transforming the way we trade.

E-commerce is an increasingly important aspect of today's economy. It offers opportunities to overcome some of the traditional obstacles to trade, including the costs associated with physical distance. This opens up unprecedented opportunities for businesses to engage in cross-border trade.

For example, with just a phone and an Internet connection you can access a global marketplace. We all now have the means to reach a broader network of consumers, and a broader selection of products from a wider range of suppliers.  

The change already seems huge, but we are only at the start of this revolution.

A WTO study found that by lowering costs and increasing productivity, digital technologies could boost trade by up to 34% by 2030.

This could be a huge catalyst for growth and development. But we cannot take these opportunities for granted.

While it is clear that e?commerce can unleash great potential, we also need to be aware of the challenges involved.

At present, not everybody can access the opportunities that e-commerce presents. Big gaps persist.

For example, connectivity is still mixed.

According to the ITU, the proportion of households with Internet access at home in developed countries is twice as high as in developing countries.

In LDCs, four out of five people are not connected.  

This is concerning. This gap could put them at a clear disadvantage in an economy that is increasingly digital.

New technologies must be harnessed to address persistent challenges and inequalities – not exacerbate them.

And of course it's not just about the connectivity gap.

Even when you are connected, other obstacles such as poor infrastructure or inadequate regulatory frameworks can still pose big barriers.

Without the right framework in place, there is a clear risk that big players will increasingly dominate, leaving smaller businesses behind.

So, what can we do? How can we make e-commerce a truly inclusive force?

While a lot of work needs to happen domestically, initiatives at the global level can also play an important role.

E-commerce has reached a high profile in discussions at the international level. We are seeing a growing number of initiatives on this front.

For example, there is now a growing number of regional agreements with provisions addressing specific e-commerce issues. Currently about 30% of the RTAs notified to the WTO contain e-commerce provisions, and this number is bound to grow.

This seems to indicate that countries are taking measures – regionally and bilaterally – to try and regulate cross-border e-commerce.

And there are also efforts towards a more coordinated approach.

Over the past few years, at the WTO, we have witnessed growing interest in discussing e-commerce issues in more detail.

At the multilateral level, members are continuing the exploratory work under the existing Work Programme on Electronic Commerce. Discussions are taking place in our regular bodies and under the auspices of the WTO General Council. The focus here has been on assessing the impact and scope of the decision taken by members not to impose customs duties on electronic transmissions.

At the same time, we have had important progress on other fronts.

At our Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in 2017, 71 WTO members signed a Joint Statement to explore further work on e-commerce. This includes developed, developing and least-developed members.

While not all members participate in these conversations, they are gaining momentum, and the proponents are clear that they are open to any member that wants to join.

Engagement has been very high so far, and members' hard work has started to bear fruit. Earlier this year, 76 WTO members announced their intention to launch negotiations on trade-related aspects of e?commerce.

This is a very positive sign about what is possible within the WTO. Members are prepared to be flexible and innovative to make progress.

The issues raised in these discussions are in tune with the broader e-commerce debate. They include, for example:

  • facilitation of e-commerce transactions, such as customs facilitation measures, paperless trading, e-signatures and e-payments;
  • issues related to market access and data flows;
  • issues around consumer and personal data; and
  • transparency of e-commerce measures and regulations.

The need to address the digital divide has also been raised. Here, members have been discussing potential flexibilities, along with the provision of technical assistance and capacity building support.  

As these conversations go forward, I think it is important to keep inclusivity at the centre of this work.

Reaching this balance will require an ongoing dialogue between different actors to gather their perspectives and expertise. This needs to be a collaborative effort, bringing together governments, labour, consumers and business - big and small, from developed and developing countries alike.

At the WTO, we are stepping up our engagement with the wider trade community in a number of ways. We have the annual Public Forum, for example. And we have our Trade Dialogues initiative, providing a regular way for different constituencies to bring to the fore the issues that matter most to them. We shouldn't be afraid of different perspectives – all are welcome, whatever they may be. Via these platforms we are helping businesses, consumers, academics, labour representatives and any other constituency that wants to do so to present their concerns and ideas to WTO members.

And we are also seeing governments take action.

For example, I know that Denmark has spearheaded efforts in setting up a permanent dialogue with the private sector by appointing the first-ever Tech Ambassador to liaise with tech companies.

This is very encouraging.

Today's meeting is another important step in that direction. We will have the chance to hear from a broad range of stakeholders, including international organizations, government, private sector and consumer organizations.

It is important to encourage these exchanges. We must be ready to learn from each other, so as to better understand what kind of policy framework would be conducive to an e-commerce environment that benefits everyone.

So I hope that today's discussions can help to guide this work and inspire further progress in all of the initiatives that I've mentioned today.

How we respond to this technological revolution is one of the defining challenges of our time.

We have to get it right. We have to ensure that e-commerce is a force for growth and development that is truly inclusive.

So I look forward to a thought-provoking and forward-looking dialogue today.

Thank you.


Kindly supplied by the World Trade Organization


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