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Why global e-commerce talks will have wide implications for consumer rights and privacy

In the wake of an eventful and productive UNCTAD e-Commerce Week, Léa Auffret, Trade team leader at BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, outlines why any global agreement on e-commerce must place the consumer interest at its core.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) organised its fourth annual week on buying and selling products online. UNCTAD e-commerce Week was attended by around 1,000 people, from government officials to businesses, NGOs and academia.

Consumers International had an important role to play, organising panels to bring the consumer voice to the decision makers and stakeholders. We, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), were also present, as well as other Consumers International members such as the China Consumers’ Association.

It is hard to overstate how essential it is for the consumer voice to be present in high-level events such as UNCTAD e-commerce Week. Too often, the consumer angle is not really taken into account. And yet, e-commerce cannot survive without consumer trust. The sector is booming but trust remains low, as highlighted in a joint study by BEUC and German consumer group vzbv, titled 'The challenge of protecting EU consumers in global online markets'. The study shows that European consumers are hesitant to shop globally, which is not surprising as they lack adequate levels of protection when something goes wrong.

Data in the spotlight of the global e-commerce debate: why it is problematic?

The discussions at UNCTAD e-commerce week seemed to focus on data as the new “oil”. We also heard from many stakeholders that privacy and data protection are a huge concern for consumers around the world when it comes to e-commerce. At the same time, government officials repeatedly uttered their broad support for trade negotiations at global level on e-commerce, at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The problem here is that these ‘e-commerce’ negotiations have more to do with making sure that companies can send your data for a trip around the world, rather than protecting you when buying from a seller located outside your country. It was striking to witness such confusion between data flows and e-commerce at such a high political level.

International talks on e-commerce might fail to really address consumer issues

To give you some context, for years some countries – champions in exporting services and their main services companies – have been calling to create global rules on cross-border data flows in a trade agreement between WTO countries. Discussions on this are already being prepped, with countries such as the United States making proposals.

Many developing countries have rightly opposed this idea because they want to preserve their ability to regulate and protect consumers. Because if you commit to certain things in an international agreement, then you must adapt your domestic law accordingly, not the other way around. As a result of this push back, a group of 70 countries decided to go ahead  by themselves and start negotiations on e-commerce anyway (see our blog).

And that’s not all! These countries also intend to put one or two things in there to make sure that it will be beneficial for consumers. They will talk about protecting consumers from email spam. This is the main problem consumers face today, right? Of course, I am being ironic: we expect much more from such an agreement to ensure e-commerce truly delivers for consumers.

Why should you care about the data protection and privacy aspects of these negotiations?

Easy and simple: it is not OK to trade fundamental rights such as the protection of your personal data and privacy. While this is not necessarily what will happen at the end of the aforementioned e-commerce talks, several lobby groups will certainly try to use this deal to bypass data protection laws. These forces believe that data protection, and to some extent consumer protection, are trade irritants when in fact they are an added value.

How to ensure a positive outcome of these negotiations?

A global agreement on e-commerce must place the consumer interest at its core. After all, it is consumers’ desire to shop online that drives e-commerce in the first place. As consumer trust in global shopping is still very low, WTO countries should focus on making it easier for consumers to buy things online. This includes providing solutions to give accurate and predictable information to consumers during their digital shopping journey. It should also provide easy and accessible means of redress for consumers if something goes wrong.

An e-commerce agreement is absolutely not the place to talk about how data can be transferred more easily between countries. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has proven that it is often way too easy for companies to play around with consumers’ most personal information without any barrier. So, let’s cross that off the list of things to deal with in these WTO discussions.