E-commerce – which way forward?
The 11th World Trade Organisation Ministerial Committee took place this month in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although a working group on e-commerce was formed, no decisions were made to pursue further WTO work made at the Ministerial. Here, Consumers International’s Director General makes the case for the work to continue in other international forums.
The last six months have seen a flurry of activity at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as several countries tabled proposals for new work on e-commerce. However, with opposing sides highlighting very different views on the benefits, or otherwise, of rules on trade liberalisation and intellectual property, it looks increasingly unlikely that any of the proposals will be adopted. Work on e-commerce will continue at the WTO but, at this stage, it is unlikely to lead to new rules or agreements.
So, what happens next from a consumer perspective? If, at this point, a less rules-based, and more flexible approach is needed, there are still several other examples of international co-operation that can make a real contribution to supporting the development of e-commerce that works for consumers.
Making e-commerce work for consumers
E-commerce obviously brings real benefits for consumers including more choice, lower prices and more convenience, so one of the major challenges is making sure more consumers have access to a good quality, affordable internet connection - as well as services, such as payment systems and postal services so that they can realise these benefits. But this is only part of the answer, they also need to be able to trust that the service is relevant to their needs, will deliver the products or services as advertised and that their payments and data are safe and that, if something goes wrong, they will able to quickly and easily put it right.
Openness to innovation, international investment and services can certainly support both consumer access and trust. However, flexibility is needed to allow countries to find the right framework that balances openness, support and regulation. Let’s not forget that the development of regulation for e-commerce is still in its infancy in many countries, and we are in the midst of fierce debates about competition in digital markets and how countries can develop relevant local services.
International initiatives to support e-commerce
Consumers International is involved in several initiatives to support countries developing e-commerce frameworks by bringing together international guidance and examples from around the world.
- The UNCTAD eTrade for all initiative is a rich source of information with national examples and international guidelines covering all aspects of e-commerce including consumer protection issues.
- The OECD recommendations on consumer protection in e-commerce that were revised in 2016.
- The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has several standards already available or in development that are relevant to e-commerce.
In 2018, Consumers International will also be launching two new initiatives to support the development of e-commerce that works for consumers:
- World Consumer Rights Day 2018 on 15 March will be on the theme of #BetterDigitalWorld with a focus on digital marketplaces where consumer organisations in nearly 100 countries will engage the public in e-commerce issues.
- A new Consumers International project, starting next year, will also help to identify successful policies and actions that support consumers in the digital economy - including in e-commerce. The Digital Index will collate examples from around the world in an accessible site giving international organisations, governments and companies a valuable resource to develop their own policies.
Although new WTO rules look unlikely, the fast pace of change in e-commerce means that the conversation will continue in other forums. Consumer groups will need to work with a bigger range of stakeholders to understand the opportunities and challenges facing consumers and develop solutions at the speed necessary to keep up with technological change. Consumers international looks forward to working with our members, regulators and businesses that put consumers at the heart of their strategy, to find solutions that deliver positive outcomes for consumers.