There are now four competing visions of the internet. How should they be governed?

Posted in: Governance at 14/03/2019 15:13

On the fringe of the 2019 World Economic Forum gathering at Davos, trade ministers from 75 members of the World Trade Organisation, between them responsible for 90% of global trade, issued a joint statement on the governance of electronic commerce. The Americans were with them in spirit, although (thanks to a government shutdown) they didn’t turn up.

Nevertheless the 76 agreed to begin negotiations, under WTO conditions and building on existing WTO commitments, on the trade-related aspects of e-commerce. In the words of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, WTO rules will serve “the revitalization of the WTO negotiating function and the necessary reform of the WTO, and will help the WTO better respond to calls from the industry and boost the confidence of all in the multilateral trading system and economic globalization at large”.

This certainly matters. In China alone, e-commerce has outpaced even the most optimistic estimates, and is probably already worth in excess of $1 trillion. On Singles Day 2018, Alibaba’s Tmall platform reportedly hosted sales in excess of $30bn. Growing the industry still further across borders could have extraordinary effects - consider, for example, the integration of the Chinese diaspora into current Chinese e-commerce platforms - but gridlock at the WTO, which requires consensus for agreement, has meant that some nations, such as India and South Africa, have been able to block progress toward lifting barriers to digital trade.

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