If you were ever concerned that the digital agenda is not seen as a global priority, the first day of the WTO’s Public Forum in Geneva should put your mind to rest. From the first plenary panel on, discussion of how ecommerce is shaping the future of trade has been right at the forefront.
The first panel, moderated by WTO Director General, Roberto Azevedo, brought together a who’s who of digital businesses. The highlight was Jack Ma, founder of Ali Baba, who made clear just how importance ecommerce will be in the coming years. According to Ma, 80 per cent of businesses will be digital by 2030, and while a lot of focus is placed on tech giants, the reality is that digital tools are allowing SMEs to thrive. Selling via platforms, or utilising the tools that platforms offer, make it easy for a small business in Malesia to sell the Brazil and vice versa. His message to business rings clear: if you’re not globalised you will be dead- regardless of what size you are.
techUK has brought a delegation of businesses to the WTO for the first time, and today saw a range of meetings, including with Andy Staines, the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN and the WTO, as well as a senior officials at the World Intellectual Property Forum (WIPO), also based in Geneva. What is striking is the willingness to engage with business to discuss how the WTO and WIPO (agendas can dovetail with what businesses actually need on the ground. It is all very well talking about patent law, but if the reality is that innovation is moving too fast for initial protection regimes, what can be done about it? Understanding the point of view of business is fundamental to the future success of these kinds of discussion.
Inevitably much of the talk at the forum is how protectionism is creeping back into the trade agenda.From Donald Trump, whose shadow looms large over the WTO due to the USA blocking the appointment of new judges to the court, making it difficult for disputes to be resolved, to developing countries worried about the impact of new technology of which they may not yet be able to take advantage. While there is a strong group of countries ready to be ambitious about digital trade, brilliantly spelt out by Costa Rican Ambassador, Alvaro Cedeno, during a panel on the e-commerce discussions, the need to reach a critical mass of WTO members ready to take policy decisions around issues like data flows and data localisation will require a huge amount of further discussion.
For the UK, the first day of the forum showed that to be an active participant at WTO level the UK Government will need strong support of its business’ community. It will also need to have serious discussions about how UK domestic policy, on issues such as internet regulation and taxation, can sometimes run the risk of being seen as running counter to the more open, free trading narrative that the Global Britain agenda suggests. As ever in trade, domestic policy has global implications, and understanding that will be critical when the UK takes its seat at the WTO.