Experts Envision Bringing Trade, Internet Communities Closer Together

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Mutual understanding between the international trade community and internet stakeholders would be of great benefit to help adjust the multilateral trade regime to the rapidly changing landscape of the digital economy. This is the main outcome of an expert meeting held last week at the World Trade Organization Public Forum.

The panel event, entitled “The internet economy and the future of international trade law,” was organised by the World Trade Institute and took place on 1 October.

Participants on the panel agreed that new technologies are greatly reshaping trade patterns. Hanne Melin – policy strategy counsel for Europe, Middle East and Africa at eBay – claimed that “asking whether innovation and technologies are changing trade is a rhetorical question: the answer is yes.” In this sense, Melin argued that e-commerce platforms are dramatically reducing the negative effects of distance on trade flows between different trade operators.

Melin argued that although the supply chain model is still valid, the internet provides new business solutions.

“There is another model: the global empowerment network, which allows smaller companies to sell from anywhere to consumers everywhere,” she said.

Despite the increasing importance of e-commerce in the international trade scenario, international trade law is not coping with the basic principles of the digital economy, some panellists said.

Nick Ashton-Hart, Geneva representative for the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), argued that it is “essential to consider the internet” because “it changes everything it touches.” However, “we have no conception in international trade law of the internet as a platform that is depended upon by businesses and wider society for communication and other services,” he said.

Against this background, the WTO has experienced difficulty in advancing multilateral discussions on electronic goods and services.

“There are many questions unanswered, even on simple issues, such as classification of electronic goods and whether WTO rules apply to the electronic delivery of goods and services,” said Mira Burri, senior research fellow at the World Trade Institute.

Burri explained that WTO members resort to preferential trade agreements (PTAs) to address some of these issues, but she cast doubt on the effectiveness of such instruments to provide adequate solutions to digital global challenges.

“Many of the PTAs reflect power bargains and are US-centric and, as such, developing countries’ policy space may be being unwittingly reduced, for example in the context of intellectual property rights,” Burri said.

At the same time, international bodies dealing with e-governance proved particularly reluctant to include the WTO in the discussions over internet regulations. Bill Drake, lecturer at the University of Zurich, claimed that “it seemed for a long time that there was no demand in the internet governance area that this be moved into the WTO.”

Several speakers proposed to open discussions between the internet and the trade communities to gain a deeper understanding of the possible areas of collaborations and to ensure an open digital environment.

“In the 1980s, people in the telecom world were surprised to hear that international services could be traded,” Drake said. “Trade and telecoms were two different communities that took a long time to start talking to each other. In the context of the WTO and internet governance, this disjuncture is evident again.”

“There is a tendency to avoid this interconnection. But interconnections exist, and the WTO can contribute to an open and free internet,” he concluded.

In the same vein, Ashton-Hart called on the WTO membership to “create a forum where people can discuss the online world.”

“How does [the online world] interact with trade law? How do we deal with an entire world not dealt with by any trade agreements? How do you fit the digital economy into the world trading system? Members should start not by thinking about negotiations but by focussing on understanding these changes,” he said.

Hamid Mamdouh, director of the WTO Trade in Services Division, echoed Ashton-Hart’s argument, saying that “we need to start understanding each other, we need to start listening.”

“Understand first. Then governments can decide if they want to negotiate,” Mamdouh said.

ISOC Paper on IP and the Internet

Separately, in the context of current debates on e-governance, earlier this year the Internet Society (ISOC) – an organisation advocating for an open and transparent internet – released a paper suggesting a number of minimum standards for future policy considerations on intellectual property and the internet.

The document, entitled “Internet Society Issues Paper on Intellectual Property on the Internet,” emphasises the importance of ensuring a multistakeholder model in the discussions over IP in the digital environment and calls for greater transparency in rule-making activities. ISOC also stressed the importance of making IP legislative initiatives subject to the principles of the rule of law – such as due process, equality of rights and fairness.

The paper recognises that “the infringement of intellectual property rights is a critical issue that needs to be addressed,” however, it warns that the solutions adopted should “not undermine the global architecture of the Internet or curtail internationally recognized rights.” Finally, the document emphasises the need for a balanced IP framework that should favour innovation. In this sense, IP rights “may be able to exclude others, but they should not be used to forestall the introduction of innovative ideas or new business models.”


Alessandro Marongiu may be reached at

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  1. […] Nick Ashton-Hart agreed that the Internet empowers SMEs at a global level. To account for this important development, international trade law needs to understand the internet as a platform that goes beyond telecom services. “If we want to bridge the digital divide”, he said, “we must ensure that the network serves the largest number of people at the cheapest possible price.” However, before the WTO members should start negotiations, they should develop a common understanding of digital trade issues, a point that was reiterated by the head of the WTO Services Division, Hamid Mamdouh. You can find an IP Watch article on this session here. […]

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