Ministers from 75 countries — including the US and China — agreed Friday to launch talks towards establishing global rules on e-commerce at the WTO in a rare victory for international cooperation.
The talks were announced by the EU’s top trade official, Cecilia Malmstrom, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos where leaders all week called for pushback against the protectionism embraced by Washington.
The announcement by roughly half of the 164-member World Trade Organization is a rare win for international cooperation, with Beijing and Washington locked in a trade war amid repeated “America First” threats by US President Donald Trump.
Trump has specifically blasted the WTO for slighting US trade interests to the benefit of China.
Malmstrom in a tweet hailed a “historical morning in Davos” that showed that the WTO “can take on challenges of the 21st century.”
The talks are to formally begin in March and will try “to make it easier and safer to buy, sell and do business online”, the statement said.
“Electronic commerce is a reality in most corners of the world, so we owe it to our citizens and companies to provide a predictable, effective and safe online environment for trade,” Malmstrom said.
Regulation of the digital world was a recurring topic at the Davos gathering which wraps up Friday after pleas by Germany and Japan for more global oversight of technology.
At the WTO, “we have yet to catch up with the new reality, in which data drives everything,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a speech on Tuesday.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that data “will be the raw material of the twenty first century”.
“If we don’t manage it, we will have (anti-technology) Luddites as we did in the past,” she said.
– ‘Mortal danger’ –
Billionaire investor George Soros, a Davos stalwart, sent a far harsher message, warning of the “mortal danger” facing societies as technology gets “in the hands of repressive regimes”.
He singled out China, and said the United States should crack down hard on Chinese telecom giants ZTE and Huawei.
“If these companies came to dominate the 5G market, they would present an unacceptable security risk for the rest of the world,” he said.
The WTO talks will focus on coming up with a single framework for handling e-commerce, as the sector was largely inexistant at the trade body’s creation in 1995.
“E-commerce is a new globalisation that needs new regulation,” said Arancha Gonzalez, of the UN’s International Trade Center.
These countries are “sending a signal that this subject cannot be dealt with at national level only,” she said.