[Español] Digital Trade is not new, in fact, it has been around since the nineties. Digital trade, to use the narrowest definition of e-commerce, is the sale and purchase of goods and services via the internet of which they are delivered digitally. Many argue that even if the whole process happened online, if the end product is a physical good, then it is not digital trade.
E-commerce officially came into the radar of multilateral trade negotiations in 1998 and to this day, the WTO still has not been able to achieve consensus amongst its members on the global trade rules that would govern digital trade or e-commerce. The root of this inability to reach agreement is that there is not even consensus on the definition and scope of e-commerce. Definitions are crucial because they form the basis of the rules. In this paper, the estimates and proposed coverage are far and wide with a middle ground hard to see. Other countries have moved ahead with their own regional trade agreements, making the Moratorium permanent in their deals. The temporary solution of the WTO Moratorium to not impose tariffs on e-commerce while the debate goes on, has allowed e-commerce to operate without a set of agreed rules on a multilateral level. All this while digital trade grows with technology and services corporations building super platforms, earning them top spots in the top 100 corporations in the world.
The millions of dollars being made in this sector is in stark contrast to the 50 percent of the global population that do not even have access to the internet, let alone digital trade. There is a deepening digital divide that needs to be addressed, not for trade, but first and foremost for access to services such as education, health, and so on, and many other ways that access to connection to support can benefit that 50 percent.
Digital trade is a crucial part of the growing Digital Economy and so it is key to understand it, follow its developments and enable and improve the capacity of people to voice their support or opposition to proposals on global trade rules that will cover digital trade. Furthermore, given its track record of free trade rules favoring the big over the small, should it even be the WTO that is given the right to make and implement the rules that govern digital trade globally?
Digital trade is growing, particularly in information, communication and technology and other services that can be delivered digitally. Digital goods have grown too but there is a physical limit to this as many physical goods, like food for example, cannot be digitalized. The presence and convenience though of digital trade such as in various services from access to transportation to accommodation to financial services to accessing applications from your smartphone, makes it feel that digital trade and the digital economy for that matter, is hurtling towards a digital future. While it is true that technological advancements have made digital access fast and easy, it is quite premature to foresee a digital future. Even if several places have infrastructure and the technology, many more do not. There is a need for capital, investment, infrastructure, capacity building, knowledge sharing, technology transfer, a population with improved access to basic needs such as food, water, shelter, healthcare, and much more important necessities, way before access to the technology and internet.
As the other aspects of the digital economy develop further such as artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, there is a critical need for monitoring and ensuring that these are not used against people, nor to exploit them, that there be a just transition to other employment for those who will lose their jobs and that most importantly, that digital trade not only profits the super platforms and corporations in technology, services, information and communication. Digital trade is growing and so is the bigger umbrella of digital economy, but it is most crucial that this growth does not just further enrich the already rich.
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