The WTO public forum is perhaps the most visible result of the WTO’s revised public relations strategy following its tumultuous 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle. In recent years, it has become a major event in the international trade agenda as it transformed from a somewhat academic public outreach exercise to a well-attended ‘marketplace of ideas’ where industry, civil society and Governments discuss trade challenges in an open and constructive environment.

With the main theme set on the digital economy and innovation, this year’s edition was of particular interest to our sector and CCIA’s Geneva team spent a busy week at the forum. Here are some of the highlights of the week.

Bali a moment of truth for the multilateral trading system

In his keynote address, USTR Michael Froman responded to those who fear that the proliferation of bilateral and plurilateral trade negotiations such as TTIP, TPP and TISA will undermine the multilateral trading system. He noted that they are meant to complement not compete with the WTO but he warned that if the Ministerial Conference in Bali made it clear that multilateral trade negotiations were deadlocked, “bilaterals and plurilaterals will likely be the only venue for trade negotiations.”

The incoming WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, in his opening speech, laid out a vision for his organisation in the coming years. In addition to the WTO’s two main pillars – its role as a negotiating forum and the dispute resolution mechanism – the organisation needs to become “a place for brainstorming where businesses at the forefront of technology and trade can interact.”

Also among the prestigious panelists of the opening session was Talal Abu-Ghazaleh who recently co-organised a symposium with CCIA and IDEA in Washington D.C. on the networked economy and trade. Abu-Ghazaleh, a highly successful entrepreneur and philanthropist from Jordan, showed himself very optimistic about the potential of the Internet for development. “If we give the young people in the developing world a computer and an Internet connection, we don’t need to give development assistance at all,” he said. “They will know how to help themselves.”

IDEA hosts constructive session on data protection and trade

The International Digital Economy Alliance (IDEA), a CCIA-led initiative advocating for an open Internet in a trade context, hosted a workshop to explore the sensitive connection between data protection, the free flow of information and trade. Speakers included IDEA’s Executive Director and CCIA’s Geneva Representative, Nick Ashton-Hart, digital trade expert Hosuk Lee-Makiyama from the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) and Jens-Henrik Jeppesen from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

The session was built around the premise that all countries have a shared need to be able to trade personal information (e.g. to make international air travel work) but at the same time, the digital economy depends upon trust, transparency, and accountability:

  • individuals and industry need clarity as to how their information is protected from use by third parties;
  • service providers need to ensure that their terms of service can be met; and,
  • governments need to ensure that services meet local needs, rules, and social expectations irrespective of where they are based.

Unfortunately, the recent disclosures concerning the large-scale interception of personal data by intelligence services have undermined the trust of consumers, businesses and Governments in the security of online services. The situation created a sense of urgency to find workable solutions at the international level, a fact that was underlined by the many delegates from influential trade missions who attended this session.

While the prevailing view among the participants was that this issue will be difficult to address within the current trade framework – was largely created before the existence of Internet services – it was agreed that this topic will need more attention in the future. In this sense, the workshop was seen as a constructive first step. You can find more about this session on the IDEA website.

CCIA speaks on future of trade law, moderates session for ICANN

CCIA’s Nick Ashton-Hart also participated in a panel discussion on the Internet economy and trade law, together with ebay, the head of the WTO’s Services Division and a digital expert from the World Trade Institute, among others. The session highlighted how international trade law largely ignores the digital revolution that transformed commerce over the past decade.

Hanne Melin from eBay noted that new digital tools such as online marketplaces are reshaping trade patterns by reducing the negative effects of distance and helping to establish trust among traders. As a result of this, the Internet effectively gives small and medium-sized businesses access to a global marketplace. Yet the international trade system is still largely built for a world in which large multinationals handle the majority of international trade.

Nick Ashton-Hart agreed that the Internet empowers SMEs at a global level. To account for this important development, international trade law needs to understand the internet as a platform that goes beyond telecom services. “If we want to bridge the digital divide”, he said, “we must ensure that the network serves the largest number of people at the cheapest possible price.” However, before the WTO members should start negotiations, they should develop a common understanding of digital trade issues, a point that was reiterated by the head of the WTO Services Division, Hamid Mamdouh. You can find an IP Watch article on this session here.

Later in the week, Nick moderated an ICANN-hosted workshop that further explored the concept of the Internet as a trading platform that all sectors depend upon. Speakers included Sweden’s Ambassador to the WTO, AT&T’s Director for European Government Affairs, ICANN’s Vice-President for Europe and the Director of NLNet Labs. An audio recording of the session is available here.

In addition to that, CCIA organised a number of meetings for the trade experts from our members companies where they could meet with senior trade diplomats and WTO officials, including with the incoming WTO Deputy Director-General responsible for intellectual property and the trade in services, Mr. Yi Xiaozhun. Mr. Yi is the former Ambassador to the WTO and Vice Minister of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China.

If the public forum didn’t solve all the world’s digital trade issues, it certainly highlighted the need to start working on them quickly.

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