E-commerce and trade: resolving dilemmas

Trade Directorate

Open trade policies spur the growth of e-commerce. But e-commerce blurs the line between goods and services and raises issues for trade rules. 

There used to be only two ways to buy a book: either order it via a catalogue or book club – a sometimes lengthy and unreliable process – or, more commonly, simply go to a shop, pay cash and take it home in a paper bag. Now, a customer can visit an online bookshop, view a book, read its blurb, browse through the shop's collection, make a selection, and pay for the book online. The book may be delivered physically or, in some cases, downloaded onto the buyer's computer. These new ways of buying a book apply to other goods and services too. And as many of the orders are international, this raises challenging issues for existing trade rules.

In other words, electronic commerce – the production, advertising, sale and distribution of products via telecommunications networks – is both dependent upon trade and transforming the way in which trade is conducted. Trade lies at the heart of these transformations, both of goods (e.g., computers) and services (e.g., telecommunications services), with liberalisation playing its part by making technology cheaper and more widely accessible.

Development tool

Electronic trade is booming. A growing number of products, from books to cars, are being marketed, sold and, increasingly, delivered online, including across borders. While precise figures for e-commerce are hard to come by, it is estimated that e-commerce will grow to $US2.5 trillion by 2004 (International Data Corporation, "The Internet Economy", www.idc.com). Electronic commerce has opened new markets for traders, large and small, including those from developing countries.

But for much of the world, ordering a book over the Internet is not yet a reality. Good trade policy can help bring technology closer to users and in so doing, bridge the so-called digital divide. In fact, the potential of e-commerce as a development tool is very much on the minds of trade policymakers. A large engine manufacturer in Europe can, via Internet, source a component to a small manufacturer in Asia, whose previous market was more local. This is because well-designed trade policies open up markets and increase access, bringing prices down for infrastructure and technology. Software engineering in India, insurance claims processing in Jamaica or remote bookkeeping in Zimbabwe: all have grown thanks to a mix of technology and trade opportunities. Traditional activities have benefited too, like farming and handicrafts, mainly by creating new possibilities for marketing, supply and distribution.

But while businesses around the world can use new communications technology to overcome many of the obstacles to growth, the cost of doing business remains very real indeed. After all, the software engineers still require computers and telecommunications links, not to mention training. And while coffee growers in Kenya can follow the market more closely, bypassing the middleman, they still have to get their goods into the consumer markets that count. Despite the new opportunities of e-commerce, traders can find themselves thwarted by more traditional problems – such as poor transport and distribution networks, inefficient customs procedures, or barriers to market access in key export markets. Trade liberalisation in services can help to upgrade infrastructure and e-commerce and ICT can help improve the efficiency of customs procedures. But what a pity it would be if e-commerce was ready to offer consumers more choice and better prices, and suppliers a wider markets for their goods, only to be thwarted by barriers such as high tariffs or unnecessarily restrictive trade practices in key export markets.

There are currently few barriers to trade conducted via e-commerce over the Internet itself, partly for reasons of technological difficulty: it is harder to prevent a consumer from connecting to an online bookseller and downloading a book than it is to stop a physical book crossing a border. A primary aim of trade policy has thus been not so much to remove existing barriers but to prevent their emergence in future.

Take customs duties. The WTO Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce, adopted in May 1998, called for a moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions until the ministerial meeting in Seattle the following year. But the failure of that meeting means there is no agreement as to whether the WTO moratorium remains in force. Still, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), which accounts for over 40% of global trade, agreed in June 2000 to an APEC-wide moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions until the next WTO Ministerial, expected before the end of 2001.

So, while e-commerce can help developing countries participate more in world trade, it poses some difficulties for trade policy. E-commerce has already had a major impact on international business practices, changing how transactions are initiated and managed and how relations unfold between buyers and sellers. It has blurred the differences between time zones; with the Internet, production and trade can be conducted around the clock and across the continents. It has blurred the boundaries between the old and new economies – car manufacturers use e-commerce – between tradable and non-tradable products, and between goods and services.

Fuzzy products

One problem at the heart of e-commerce trade is the definition of goods and services. If a book is ordered online, but is delivered physically, there is general agreement that, for the purposes of international trade rules, it is a good. That makes it subject to the international rules for trade in goods, the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). However, if the book is delivered electronically – downloaded onto the computer – there is no agreement whether this digital product should be treated as a good under the rules, or a service, which would make it subject to a GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) regime. Not a trivial distinction, since there are important differences between the rules covering goods and services, including the type of market access granted and non-discrimination between national and foreign suppliers. For example, discrimination against foreign suppliers is, in general, forbidden for trade in goods, but not for trade in services. The status of these e-products is as yet to be agreed by member governments in the WTO.

Another issue that has arisen is whether commitments made under WTO agreements – in particular related to services – are "technologically neutral" – i.e., whether they also cover electronic delivery. Generally, WTO members and commentators argue that a country’s commitment to open its market for cross border supply of accountancy services, for instance, applies equally whether those services are provided by letter, fax or over the Internet. However, some question whether specific commitments made during the Uruguay Round (which predates the e-commerce era) should include supply over electronic networks.

Liberalisation has helped 

One point seems hard to deny: open trade policies have spurred the growth of e-commerce. They have driven technology costs down and made the basic information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure more accessible. And liberalisation has helped to increase the size of markets available to innovators, stimulating activity even in countries with small domestic markets.

But lower telecommunications costs as a result of open policies has perhaps been the critical contribution. In fact, there are direct links between lack of infrastructure competition, high access costs and low rates of Internet use (See Databank). Moreover, competition among infrastructure and service providers, in combination with appropriate pricing and licence policies, has improved the quality of infrastructure and access services in several countries.

However, telecommunications infrastructure and services are not the only inputs; many other players also support e-commerce. Buying a book online also relies on a network of supporting services, such as computers, telecoms, finance and banking (especially payments), and courier and transport services. The current GATS 2000 negotiations will play a key role in liberalising this group of services, making electronic commerce even more accessible. The talks also hope to do something about making highly skilled people more mobile.

The GATS negotiations offer countries a chance to lock in pro-competitive reforms; disseminate best regulatory practices; extend their benefits on a most-favored-nation treatment basis; and send a strong signal to foreign investors on the irreversible nature of recently enacted policy changes, thus building their confidence in governments, particularly in transition and emerging markets, reassuring them that, for example, privatisation programmes will not be reversed at a whim.

Still, much remains to be done by way of international regulatory co-operation if cross-border trade in e-commerce is to grow to potential. Areas as diverse as data privacy; encryption technology; the development of secure payments systems; and taxation all raise legitimate public policy questions to which trade officials (as well as others) will need to find answers that meet public policy objectives without restricting trade, nor preventing the benefits of access and lower costs that flow from it.


• OECD, Economics Department Working Papers No. 252 “E-commerce: impacts and policy challenges”, June 2000.

• Mann, C., Global E-commerce– a policy primer, Institute for International Economics, Washington DC, 2000.

• UNCTAD, Building Confidence– electronic commerce and development, Geneva 2000.

©OECD Observer No 224, January 2001 

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

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