Today is a significant day for digital trade. After 21 years of stalled talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), trade ministers from 75 countries have announced the start of formal negotiations on an e-commerce agreement. This is an important step towards liberalising digital trade in a context of greater digital protectionism across the world.
It is especially welcome that China has joined these negotiations. As an increasingly important digital actor, it is crucial that China is an full participant and included in any final deal. With the WTO and the global trading system under strain, conducting these talks on a broad base with a high level of ambition is essential to demonstrate that progress at a multilateral level is still possible.
Despite the WTO first beginning to discuss trade related aspects of ecommerce in 1998, no meaningful progress was ever made, and global rules on digital trade remain largely absent. It is therefore important that these negotiations proceed swiftly. Digital increasingly underpins almost every aspect of global trade and another failure to make progress could lead to further fragmentation on trading relationships that risk making it increasingly difficult for businesses to trade across borders.
That is why techUK has joined with over 50 global business organisations to urge rapid action on an ambitious WTO ecommerce framework. After a year of preliminary discussions following the 2017 Joint Statement Initiative on ecommerce, the time has come to make substantial commitments that support the digital economy and enable and promote global ecommerce as they key engine of global growth.
Negotiations are set to cover a range of areas that are important for the tech sector. Data localisation and data flows will form a part of the discussions and are probably the most urgent issues faced by digital companies right now. Talks will also cover the forced transfer of source codes, tackling barriers to cross border sales, a permanent ban on customs duties on electronic transmissions and work on the validity of e-contracts and e-signatures.
The UK can play an important role in these negotiations once it takes it up its own seat after Brexit. As a leading digital economy, with a tech sector worth over £184 billion, the UK is set to be a beneficiary of new global roles and it is essential that it both pushes the EU to be as ambitious as possible while a member, and then works with other like-minded countries post-Brexit to help ensure the success of the talks.
With digital technology currently revolutionising every sector and industry, now is the time to seize this opportunity to update and futureproof the rules that govern trade. If this effort fails then the next might not come again for a long time.