More than 300 Civil Society Groups Call on Governments to Reject Digital Trade Talks in the World Trade Organization (WTO)

April 1, 2019

As thousands gather for “UNCTAD eCommerce Week” in Geneva, just weeks after some countries launched talks on “e-commerce,” groups warn governments of serious dangers and urge them to instead focus on transforming global trade rules for shared prosperity for all

(Geneva) Today, 315 civil society organizations – including global union federations, development advocates, consumer organizations, and environmental groups – from more than 90 countries delivered a letter (available in English, Spanish, and French in PDF) to members of the WTO. In it, they express their “profound and urgent opposition to these proposed negotiations which, if concluded, could result in the full liberalization of the entire (digital) economy, and thus represent back door attempt to achieve a “WTO 2.0”.

The WTO membership 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 letter noted that “[w]hile 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. It would accelerate the global disadvantaging of workers and small enterprises in all countries vis-à-vis large corporations that characterizes the current global economy.”

The groups 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 labor stripped of its rights; expanding its power through monopolies; and evading the payment of taxes. The proposed rules thus represent a grave threat to development, human rights, labor, 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 (OWINFS) 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.

“Developing countries must develop their own agenda for digital industrialization. They must not advance the “e-commerce rules” that were developed by TNCs 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.

It concluded that “all countries likewise urgently need policies to constrain the behavior of these corporate behemoths, not to further entrench their outsized monopoly power. A pro-development outcome cannot be achieved in e-commerce talks because the rules and policies needed for digital industrialization are the opposite of WTO rules, which give companies rights while constraining the role of the state in regulating.”