Herding cats? WTO may open negotiations on e-commerce

  • May 27, 2019

There are 159 countries in the World Trade Organization and when it comes to e-commerce, so far the only thing they’ve been able to agree on is to not put customs duties on electronic transmissions – a moratorium that has been renewed every two years since 1998.

But with the WTO possibly opening negotiations on this complex subject, Global Affairs Canada has initiated a consultation to find out what Canadian businesses think would facilitate trade and create a “predictable, transparent and rules-based framework.”

A number of Sections provided input for CBA’s submission: Business Law, Commodity Tax, Customs and Trade, Competition Law, Intellectual Property, Taxation Law and International Law all had something to add to the discussion based on their areas of expertise.

“We believe there are benefits to an agreement on e-commerce at the WTO that increases market access, eliminates barriers to digital trade and safeguards personal information and consumer protection,” the Sections write. “This can be accomplished by bringing the full scope of digital trade under the aegis of WTO disciplines and ensuring that digital trade is subject to horizontal obligations of national treatment and non-discrimination, while allowing countries to adopt domestic regulatory regimes that are not disguised restrictions on trade.”

The Sections note that unnecessary barriers could “undermine the global digital economy’s potential,” but common rules could remove technical and logistical barriers.

“In addition, an e-commerce agreement could foster international cooperation and coordination to address harms of a global digital economy, such as disinformation in political campaigns, fake news, hate crimes, cyber-bullying and cyber-crime.”

The Sections make nine recommendations for Global Affairs Canada to consider in the event that the WTO opens e-commerce negotiations – including that Canada should pursue an agreement on the non-application of customs duties on electronic transmissions or digital products, instead of just renewing the moratorium every two years.

Other recommendations are:

  • The WTO should consider if e-commerce services would benefit from more generally applicable national treatment rules, and other technical barriers to trade-like disciplines.
  • Canada should pursue an agreement on market access to avoid unnecessary regulatory burdens and to be consistent with its approach in recent trade negotiations.
  • The framework should make different privacy requirements interoperable across jurisdictions and create an agreement facilitating the movement of data.
  • The work being done by OECD and other organizations regarding taxation of digital products should be considered.
  • The agreement should address licensing IP rights from a rights owner to a third party, as well as barriers to the online environment and measures to counter pirating.
  • The e-commerce laws, policies and regulations should be readily available to businesses and consumers.
  • Any agreement on online consumer protection and choice would have to consider the complex nature of the consumer protection landscape in Canada.
  • A WTO agreement could harmonize privacy and data protection laws across jurisdictions.