Can the WTO build consensus on digital trade?

October 5, 2021

In July, 2021, the envoys of Australia, Japan, and Singapore to the World Trade Organization (WTO) made a significant announcement: The plurilateral Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce was making excellent progress among the talks’ eighty-six members. In September, the members noted further momentum, citing consensus on high-standard texts reflecting the perspectives of both developed and developing nations. These announcements continued the winding saga of one of the world’s sharply contested debates for global governance: the regulation of digital trade by the WTO.

At the WTO, digital trade has emerged as a key umbrella concept, capturing a variety of trade in goods and services in which the internet plays a central role - a far cry from the Uruguay Round’s description of the internet as an “obscure novelty.” 

Indeed, the WTO was born to cater to an analogue world. Only in 1996, following the First Ministerial Conference in Singapore, did members recognize the gap and begin to draw up rules that could regulate trade in a rapidly digitizing era.

Since then, the process has been keenly contested. Gridlock at the WTO has caused members to look outside and negotiate free trade agreements with countries that share economic and strategic interests. Can the WTO remain relevant and resilient as it adapts to the regulatory challenges of the digital age?

This article briefly summarizes the developments on digital trade at the WTO, identifies the fault-lines that have prevented overarching consensus on several issues, and explores the politics that shape the fault lines. It concludes with suggestions on how to make the WTO work for the digital trade ambitions of developed and developing countries alike.