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E.U. publishes its plan for e-commerce rules

The E.U. made public its proposal on Friday for creating new global rules on electronic commerce through the World Trade Organization.

BRUSSELS (AN) — The European Union made public its proposal on Friday for creating new global rules on electronic commerce through the World Trade Organization, in a bid to give consumers more confidence.

The E.U. said it hopes to establish new WTO multilateral rules for e-commerce that can help industrialized and developing nations make it easier and safer for businesses to conduct online transactions.

It aims to reduce spam, make it easier for businesses to engage in cross-border sales and offer guarantees on the validity of e-contracts and e-signatures, according to the nine-page published proposal. It also targets banned customs duties on electronic transmissions and forced data localization and disclosure of source code.

"The E.U. supports an open and transparent negotiating process that will take into account the specific opportunities and challenges that members may face in this very broad area of trade, and hopes that more WTO members will join these negotiations in due course," the European Commission said in a statement.

Global e-commerce sales grew by 13% in 2017 to reach an estimated US$29 trillion, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development reported in late March.

A similar surge was seen in the number of online shoppers, which jumped 12% to include 1.3 billion people, or a quarter of the world’s population, the Geneva-based U.N. agency, known as UNCTAD, said in a statement.

It said most internet buyers purchased goods and services from domestic vendors. But the share of those buying from abroad rose from 15% in 2015 up to 21% in 2017, mostly due to demand from buyers in the United States.

That pushed cross-border business-to-consumer sales up to an estimated US$412 billion, or almost 11% of all business-to-consumer electronic commerce. The United States had US$9 trillion in online sales, three times higher than in Japan and more than four times higher than in China. Germany overtook South Korea to become the fourth largest online market.

“The new figures show that e-commerce is indeed creating export opportunities,” UNCTAD's Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said. “But the question from a development standpoint is whether businesses in developing countries are prepared to seize the opportunities."

A patchwork of rules

The 164-nation WTO has no specific global rules for handling the growth of domestic and cross-border electronic commerce that has been driven by the internet revolution of the past two decades.

Instead, business and consumers are subject to "a patchwork of rules" from bilateral and regional trade agreements, the commission said.

So far, however, only 76 WTO members, including the E.U., have agreed to be involved in negotiations towards bringing the rules up to date, according to the commission.

The E.U.'s push to protect consumers and traders by strengthening online transactions follows on negotiations that were revived in January on the last day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss resort town of Davos.

But the E.U. first attempts to establish such a regulatory framework date as far back as its “European initiative in electronic commerce” published in 1997.

The E.U.'s new e-commerce plan is scheduled to be taken up for consideration, along with proposals from other participating WTO members, at talks in Geneva from May 13 to 15.