Don't hold digital trade talks in WTO: Civil society groups call on governments

Developing countries;must come up with their own agenda for digital industrialisation;instead of advancing ones by tech giants, say activists
Representational Image. Photo: Getty Images
Representational Image. Photo: Getty Images

On April 1, 2019, 315 civil society organisations — including global union federations, development advocates, consumer organisations, and environmental groups — from more than 90 countries wrote to members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) opposing the proposed negotiations on e-commerce that are to take place in Geneva this week.

“While the rhetoric surrounding e-commerce highlights the opportunities for developing country entrepreneurs, having binding rules on the still-emerging digital economy would severely constrain the ability of countries to develop their economies in the future,” the letter noted. “It would accelerate the global disadvantaging of workers and small enterprises in all countries vis-à-vis large corporations that characterises the current global economy,” it added.

Thousands are gathering for UNCTAD e-commerce Week in Geneva this week, just weeks after some countries launched talks on e-commerce.

Members of the WTO had rejected displacing the “development agenda” in the WTO for a new agenda on digital trade at the last ministerial meeting in December 2017 in Argentina. In spite of this, a number of countries decided to launch negotiations in March 2019.

The civil society organisations further argued that binding rules as proposed in the WTO “would enable Big Tech to consolidate its exploitative business model, including gaining rights to access markets globally; extracting and controlling personal, social, and business data around the world; locking-in deregulation and evading future regulation; accessing an unlimited supply of labour stripped of its rights; expanding its power through monopolies; and evading the payment of taxes.”

They said that “the proposed rules thus represent a grave threat to development, human rights, labour, and shared prosperity around the world, and are the opposite of the policies needed to rein in the power of Big Tech.”

The letter was coordinated by the global Our World Is Not for Sale network, members of which have been studying the proposed rules for the last several years, and who will be holding a series of six different events at the UNCTAD eCommerce Week.

It called on developing countries to develop their own agenda for digital industrialisation. “They must not advance the e-commerce rules that were developed by transportation network companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Alibaba in their own interests. Other models can more equitably distribute the benefits of the digital economy while reinforcing human rights,” noted the letter. 

Civil society groups had issued a similar call in January this year as well.

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