United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research

Acronym: UNIDIR

Established: 1980

Address: Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Website: https://www.unidir.org/

Stakeholder group: International and regional organisations

Founded in 1980, UNIDIR is a voluntarily funded, autonomous institute within the United Nations. One of the few policy institutes worldwide focusing on disarmament, UNIDIR generates knowledge and promotes dialogue and action on disarmament and security. Based in Geneva, UNIDIR assists the international community to develop the practical, innovative ideas needed to find solutions to critical security problems.

Digital activities

The research areas of UNIDIR’s SecTec focus on cybersecurity, such as threats and vulnerabilities related to information and communications technologies (ICTs), and the use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) applications in warfare. SecTec has supported the UN processes on ICTs Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) and the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) and continues to support the OEWG on security of and in the use of ICTs (2021–2025). It focuses on research and awareness raising on this topic with a broad range of stakeholders and maps the cybersecurity policy landscape.

Digital policy issues

Cybersecurity

SecTec builds knowledge and raises awareness of the security implications of new and emerging technologies. Cyber stability is one area of focus for UNIDIR, the work of which supports the implementation of specific norms and recommendations previously agreed by member states. It also explores options to strengthen cyber stability and crisis management mechanisms. UNIDIR provides technical and expert advice to the chairpersons of the UN GGE and OEWG on norms, international law, confidence-building measures, capacity  building,  cooperation, and institutional dialogue. The annual Cyber Stability Conference brings various stakeholders together to promote a secure and stable cyberspace and in particular the role of the UN processes such as the OEWG on Security of and in the Use of Information and Communications Technologies (2021–2025).

Launched in 2019, the Cyber Policy Portal is an interactive map of the global cyber policy landscape. It provides profiles of the cyber policies of all 193 UN member states, in addition to various intergovernmental organizations and multi-stakeholder instruments and other initiatives. This confidence-building tool supports informed participation by relevant stakeholders in all policy processes and promotes trust, transparency, and cooperation in cyberspace. The updated version of the portal was launched in May 2022, providing several new features, such as full text search, and is available in all UN official languages.

Accessible from the portal, the National Survey of Implementation of United Nations Recommendations of Responsible Use of ICTs by States in the Context of International Security collates national take-up of the recommendations from the 2015 GGE report, with a view to assisting assessment of their further development and implementation. The survey allows UN member states to conduct regular self-assessments of national implementation of the recommendations.

It can also support UN member states in responding to an invitation from the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to continue to inform the Secretary-General of their views and assessments on the issue of developments in the field of ICTs in the context of international security.

It supports transparency, information sharing, and confidence building by giving UN member states the possibility of making the results of the survey publicly available on their national profiles on UNIDIR’s Cyber Policy Portal.

The Cyber Policy Portal Database provides direct access to documents and references through the profiles of all 193 UN member states on the Cyber Policy Portal. The database allows searching across several categories, including state, type of document, topic, issuing body, and more.

Artificial intelligence

AI and the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies is one of UNIDIR’s current research areas. It aims to raise awareness and build capacities of various stakeholders, including member states, technical communities, academia, and the private sector. Research on AI covers a broad range of topics from human decision-making, autonomous vehicles, and swarm technologies.

UNIDIR SecTec is currently developing the Artificial Intelligence Portal. This tool will gather available information at the national, regional, and international levels on policies, processes, and structures that are relevant to the development and use of AI for military or security purposes. The portal will be developed to support transparency, information sharing, and confidence building in the field of AI.

Emerging technologies

UNIDIR’s research equally focuses on security dimensions of innovations in science and technology. In synergy with the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament and recent UNGA resolutions on the role of science and technology in the context of international security, UNIDIR proactively identifies and examines emerging and over-the-horizon innovations. It analyses potential implications for international security and facilitates dialogue among relevant stakeholders to encourage cross-sector cooperation.

Digital tools

Future of meetings

UNIDIR has organized virtual events, meetings, and workshops through video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Webex.

In addition, UNIDIR’s 2022 Cyber Stability Conference was hosted on a browser-based streaming platform, StreamYard, and was broadcast across various social media channels.

Social media channels

Facebook @unidirgeneva

Instagram @un_disarmresearch

LinkedIn @UNIDIR

Twitter @UNIDIR

YouTube @UNIDIR-the UN Institute for Disarmament Research

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Acronym: UNCTAD

Established: 1964

Address: Palais des Nations, Av. de la Paix 8-14, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Website: https://unctad.org/

Stakeholder group: International and regional organisations

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is a UN body dedicated to supporting developing countries in accessing the benefits of a globalised economy more fairly and effectively. It provides analysis, facilitates consensus-building, and offers technical assistance, thus helping countries use trade, investment, finance, and technology to support inclusive and sustainable development.

UNCTAD also works to facilitate and measure progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), through a wide range of activities in areas such as technology and innovation, trade, investment, environment, transport and logistics, and the digital economy.

UNCTAD’s work often results in analyses and recommendations that can inform national and international policy-making processes, and contribute to promoting economic policies aimed at ending global economic inequalities and generating human-centric sustainable development.

Digital Activities

UNCTAD is particularly active in the field of e-commerce, trade, and the digital economy, carrying out a wide range of activities from research and analysis to providing assistance to member states in developing adequate legislative frameworks and facilitating international dialogue on the development opportunities and challenges associated with the digital economy. UNCTAD also works to facilitate and measure progress towards achieving the SDGs, in particular through (but not limited to) its activities in the field of science, technology, and innovation (STI) for development. Consumer protection, gender equality, and privacy and data protection are other digital policy areas where UNCTAD is active.

Digital policy issues

E-commerce and trade 

UNCTAD’s work programme on e-commerce and the digital economy (ECDE Programme), encompasses several research and analysis, consensus building and technical assistance activities, as follows:

Research and analysis

UNCTAD conducts research and analysis on e-commerce and the digital economy and their implications for trade and development. These are mainly presented in its flagship publication, the Digital Economy Report (known as Information Economy Report until 2017), and in its Technical Notes on ICT for Development.

Consensus building on e-commerce and digital economy policies

UNCTAD’s Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy meets regularly to discuss ways to strengthen the development dimension of e-commerce and the digital economy. The group’s meetings are usually held in conjunction with the eCommerce Week, an annual event hosted by UNCTAD and featuring discussions on development opportunities and challenges associated with the digital economy.

E-Commerce assessments and strategy formulation

The eTrade Readiness Assessments (eT Readies) assist least developed countries (LDCs) and other developing countries in understanding their e-commerce readiness in key policy areas in order to better engage in and benefit from e-commerce. The assessments provide recommendations to overcome identified barriers and bottlenecks to growth and enjoying the benefits of digital trade.

UNCTAD’s work on information and communication technology (ICT) policy reviews and national e-commerce strategies involves technical assistance, advisory services, diagnostics, and strategy development on e-commerce, and national ICT planning at the request of governments. Through an analysis of the infrastructural, policy, regulatory, institutional, operational, and socioeconomic landscape, the reviews help governments to overcome weaknesses and bureaucratic barriers, leverage strengths and opportunities, and put in place relevant strategies.

Legal frameworks for e-commerce

UNCTAD’s E-commerce and Law Reform work helps to develop an understanding of the legal issues underpinning e-commerce through a series of capacity-building workshops for policymakers at the national and regional levels. Concrete actions include: Assistance in establishing domestic and regional legal regimes to enhance trust in online transactions, regional studies on cyber laws harmonisation, and the global mapping of e-commerce legislation through its ‘Global Cyberlaw Tracker’.

Measuring the information economy

UNCTAD’s work on measuring the information economy includes statistical data collection and the development of methodology, as well as linking statistics and policy through the Working Group on Measuring E-commerce and the Digital Economy, established by the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-Commerce and the Digital Economy. Figures are published in the biennial Digital Economy Report and the statistics portal UNCTADstat. Technical co-operation here aims to strengthen the capacity of national statistical systems to produce better, more reliable, and internationally comparable statistics on the following issues: ICT use by enterprises, size and composition of the ICT sector, and e-commerce and international trade in ICT-enabled services. UNCTAD also produces the B2C E-commerce Index which measures an economy’s preparedness to support online shopping.

Smart Partnerships through eTrade for all

The eTrade for all initiative (eT4a) is a global collaborative effort of 32 partners to scale up co-operation, transparency, and aid efficiency towards more inclusive e-commerce. Its main tool is an online platform (etradeforall.org), a knowledge-sharing and information hub that facilitates access to a wide range of information and resources on e-commerce and the digital economy. It offers a gateway for matching the suppliers of technical assistance with those in need. Beneficiaries can connect with potential partners, learn about trends, best practices, up-to-date e-commerce indicators, and upcoming events all in one place. The initiative also acts as catalyst of partnership among its members for increased synergies. This collaboration has concretely translated into the participation of several eT4a partners as key contributors to the various eCommerce Weeks organised by UNCTAD and in the conduct and review of eTrade Readiness Assessments.

Consumer protection 

Through its Competition and Consumer Policies Programme, UNCTAD works to assist countries in improving their competition and consumer protection policies. It provides a forum for intergovernmental deliberations on these issues, undertakes research, policy analysis and data collection, and provides technical assistance to developing countries. The Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Consumer Protection Law and Policy monitors the implementation of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection and carries out research and provides technical assistance on consumer protection issues (including in the context of e-commerce and the digital economy).

UNCTAD’s work programme on consumer protection is guided, among others, by the UN Conference of Competition and Consumer Protection (held every five years). In 2020, the conference will hold high-level consultations on strengthening consumer protection and competition in the digital economy, and international enforcement co-operation among consumer protection authorities in electronic commerce.

Given the significant imbalances in market power in the digital economy, competition policy is becoming increasingly relevant for developing countries. UNCTAD addresses this issue in the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Competition Law and Policy.

UNCTAD also runs the Research Partnership Platform, aimed at contributing to the development of best practices in the formulation and implementation of competition and consumer protection laws and policies.

Sustainable development 

UNCTAD works to facilitate and measure progress towards achieving the SDGs, in particular through (but not limited to) its activities in the field of STI for development. The organisation supports countries in their efforts to integrate STI in national development strategies, through initiatives such as Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Reviews and capacity building programmes (such as the Innovation Policy Learning Programme). The eT4a initiative is also intended to contribute to several SDGs, especially in relation to decent work and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, global partnerships, and gender equality. Moreover, UNCTAD’s SDG Pulse offers statistical information on developments related to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UNCTAD’s Investment Policy Framework for Sustainable Development provides guidance for policymakers in formulating national investment policies and in negotiating investment agreements. The organisation is also part of the Toolbox for Financing for SDGs – a platform launched in 2018 at the initiative of the President of the UN General Assembly to assist countries and financial actors in exploring solutions to the challenges of financing the SDGs.

UNCTAD carries out research and analysis work covering various development-related issues, examples being its Digital Economy Report and the Technical notes on ICT for development. As the body responsible for servicing the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CTSD), UNCTAD also assists the CSTD in its sustainable development-related work, for instance by preparing studies and reports on issues such as the impact of advanced technologies on sustainable development.

Other UNCTAD activities designed to contribute to sustainable development cover issues such as climate change, the circular economy, and intellectual property.

Capacity development 

Many activities undertaken by UNCTAD have a capacity development dimension. For instance, its work on e-commerce and trade includes supporting developing countries in establishing adequate legal frameworks in these areas (e.g. its eCommerce and Law Reform work) and in producing statistics that can guide effective policy-making (e.g. the Measuring E-commerce and the Digital Economy activities and the ICT Policy Reviews ). UNCTAD’s E-Learning on Trade platform provides courses and training on issues such as trade, gender and development and non-tariff measures in trade.

UNCTAD also works to build capacity in STI policy-making in developing countries, through initiatives such as the Innovation Policy Learning programme and STI training provided in the context of the P166 programme.

Additionally, UNCTAD’s Virtual Institute – run in co-operation with universities worldwide – is dedicated to building knowledge for trade and development. Another area where UNCTAD provides capacity building for developing countries is that of statistics: The organisation and its partners assist national statistics organisations in the collection, compilation and dissemination of their statistics in domains such as trade, sustainable development, and investments.

Gender rights online 

UNCTAD runs a Trade, Gender and Development Programme dedicated to assisting countries in developing and implementing gender-sensitive trade policies, conducting gender impact analyses of trade policies and agreements, and strengthening the links between trade and gender. One notable initiative is the eTrade for Women initiative, dedicated to advancing the empowerment of women through ICTs.

Other initiatives undertaken in this area include capacity building on trade and gender, the Women in STEM: Changing the narrative dialogues, and the  Data and statistics for more gender-responsive trade policies in Africa, the Caucasus and Central Asia project.

Data governance? 

As data has become a key resource in the digital economy, data governance is a fundamental part of the work of UNCTAD. This is illustrated, for example, in the research and analysis work of the Digital Economy Report 2019, which focused on the role of data as the source of value in the digital economy and how it is created and captured. Moreover, some of UNCTAD’s work on e-commerce and digital trade touches specifically on privacy and data protection issues. For instance, the eCommerce and Law Reform work dedicated to supporting developing countries in their efforts to establish adequate legal frameworks for e-commerce also covers data protection and privacy among the key issues addressed. The Global Cyberlaw Trackers offers information on data protection laws in UNCTAD member states.

Also relevant for data governance discussions is UNCTAD’s work on statistics, as the organisation collects and analyses a wide range of data on issues such as economic trends, international trade, population, and the digital economy. Moreover, UNCTAD’s SDG Pulse offers statistical information on developments related to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UNCTAD is also running several projects focused on improving the efficiency of data management in the context of activities such as maritime trade (e.g. the Digitising Global Maritime Trade project) and customs operations (e.g. the Automated System for Customs Data).

Digital tools

 UNCTAD has developed several digital tools and online platforms in recent years. Examples include:

Future of meetings

Any reference to online or remote meetings?

Any reference to deliberation or decision making online?

Internet Governance Forum

Acronym: IGF

Established: 2006

Address: Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Website: https://www.intgovforum.org

Stakeholder group: International and regional organisations

The IGF provides the most comprehensive coverage of digital policy issues on the global level. The IGF Secretariat in Geneva coordinates both the planning of IGF annual meetings (working together with the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) and the wider IGF community) and a series of intersessional activities (run all year long). These activities could be summarised in three ‘multi’ initiatives:

  • Multistakeholder participation: It involves governments, business, civil society, the technical community, academia, and other actors who affect or are affected by digital policy This diversity is reflected in IGF processes, events, and consultations.
  • Multidisciplinary coverage: It relates to addressing policy issues from technological, legal, security, human rights, economic, development, and sociocultural perspectives. For example, data, as a governance issue, is addressed from standardisation, e-commerce, privacy, and security perspectives.
  • Multilevel approach: It spans IGF deliberations from the local level to the global level, through a network of over 150 national, subregional, and regional IGF They provide context for discussions on digital policy like the real-life impact of digitalisation on policy, economic, social, and cultural fabric of local communities. The IGF Secretariat supports such initiatives (which are independent) and coordinates the participation of the overall network.

The IGF ecosystem converges around the annual IGF, which is attended by thousands of participants. The last few IGFs include Paris (2018), Berlin (2019), online edition due to the pandemic (2020), and Katowice (2021), involving over 10,000 participants, more than 1,000 speakers in over 300 sessions.

The intersessional work includes best practice forums (on issues such as cybersecurity, local content, data and new technologies, and gender and access); dynamic coalitions (on issues such as community connectivity, network neutrality, accessibility and disability, and child safety online etc.); policy networks (on environment, meaningful access and Internet fragmentation); and other projects such as Policy Options for Connecting and Enabling the Next Billion(s) (which ran between 2015 and 2018) as well as a number of capacity development activities.

IGF mandate

The IGF mandate was outlined in the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, November 2005). It was renewed for another 10 years by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 16 December 2015, (70/125).

The main functions of the IGF are specified in Article 72 of the Tunis Agenda. The mandate of the Forum is to:

  • Discuss public policy issues related to key elements of Internet governance in order to foster the sustainability, robustness, security, stability, and development of the internet.
  • Facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the internet and discuss issues that do not fall within the scope of any existing body.
  • Interface with appropriate inter-governmental organisations and other institutions on matters under their purview.
  • Facilitate the exchange of information and best practices, and in this regard, make full use of the expertise of the academic, scientific, and technical communities.
  • Advise all stakeholders in proposing ways and means to accelerate the availability and affordability of the Internet in the developing world.
  • Strengthen and enhance the engagement of stakeholders in existing and/or future internet governance mechanisms, particularly those from developing countries.
  • Identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and where appropriate, make recommendations.
  • Contribute to capacity building for internet governance in developing countries, drawing on local sources of knowledge and expertise.
  • Promote and assess, on an ongoing basis, the embodiment of WSIS principles in internet governance processes.
  • Discuss, inter alia, issues relating to critical internet resources.
  • Help to find solutions to the issues arising from the use and misuse of the internet, of particular concern to everyday users.
  • Publish its proceedings.

In fulfilling its mandate, the Forum is institutionally supported by the UN Secretariat for the Internet Governance Forum placed with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Its working modalities also include MAG and most recently the Leadership Panel, both appointed by the UN Secretary-General.

Digital policy issues

Until 2019, IGF annual meetings used to host sessions tackling a wide range of digital policy issues (for instance, IGF 2018 had eight themes: cybersecurity, trust, and privacy; development, innovation, and economic issues; digital inclusion and accessibility; human rights, gender, and youth; emerging technologies; evolution of internet governance; media and content; and technical and operational issues). In 2019, in an effort to bring more focus within the IGF, the MAG decided (considering community input) to structure the IGF programme around a limited number of tracks: security, safety, stability, and resilience; data governance; and digital inclusion. This approach was kept for IGF 2020, which saw four thematic tracks: data, environment, inclusion, and trust. The thematic approach did not mean that the IGF saw some digital policy issues as being less relevant than others, but rather that it encouraged discussions at the intersection of multiple issues. The Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) Digital Watch reporting for IGF 2020 and IGF 2019 illustrates this trend, showing that the IGF discussed a wide range of policy issues (across all seven internet governance baskets of issues) within the limited number of thematic tracks.

The leadership panel

In line with the IGF mandate and as recommended in the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the UN Secretary-General established the IGF Leadership Panel as a strategic, empowered, multistakeholder body, to address urgent, strategic issues, and highlight Forum discussions and possible follow-up actions to promote greater impact and dissemination of IGF discussions.

More specifically, the Panel provides strategic inputs and advice on the IGF; promotes the IGF and its outputs; supports both high-level and at-large stakeholder engagement in the IGF and IGF fundraising efforts; exchanges IGF outputs with other stakeholders and relevant forums; and feeds input from these decision-makers and forums to the IGF’s agenda-setting process, leveraging relevant MAG expertise.

The 10-member Panel meets at least three times a year.

Future of meetings

Since its first meeting in Athens (2006), the IGF has been a pioneer in online deliberation and hybrid meetings. In addition to individual online participation, the IGF has encouraged the development of a network of remote hubs where participants meet locally while following online deliberations from the global IGF. In this way the IGF has created a unique interplay between local and global deliberations through the use of technology. For hybrid meetings delivered in situ and online, the IGF developed the function of remote moderator, who ensures that there is smooth interplay between online and in situ discussions.

Social media channels

Facebook @IGF – Internet Governance Forum
Instagram @intgovforum
Twitter @intgovforum
YouTube @Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

World Trade Organization

Acronym: WTO

Established: 1995

Address: Centre William Rappard, Rue de Lausanne 154, 1211 Geneva 21, Switzerland

Website: https://www.wto.org/

Stakeholder group: International and regional organisations

WTO is an intergovernmental organisation that deals with the rules of trade among its members. Its main functions include administering WTO trade agreements, providing a forum for trade negotiations, settling trade disputes, monitoring national trade policies, providing technical assistance and training for developing countries, and ensuring cooperation with other international organisations.

WTO members have negotiated and agreed upon rules regulating international trade, fostering transparency and predictability in the international trading system. The main agreements are the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement).

Digital activities

Several internet governance and digital trade policy- related issues are discussed in WTO. E-commerce discussions are ongoing under the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce and among a group of 87 WTO members currently negotiating e-commerce rules under the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on E-commerce. Discussions focus on several digital issues, including data flows and data localisation, source code, cybersecurity, privacy, consumer protection, capacity building, and customs duties on electronic transmissions.

As part of its outreach activities, WTO organises numerous events such as the Aid for Trade Global Review and an annual Public Forum, which brings together governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics, businesses, and other stakeholders for discussions on a broad range of issues, including many relating to the digital economy.

Digital policy issues

Telecommunications

In 1997, WTO members successfully concluded negotiations on market access for basic telecommunications services, which resulted in new specific commitments in the sector for a significant part of  WTO  membership.  These negotiations also resulted in the Reference Paper, a set of regulatory principles for basic telecommunication services that various members have inscribed in their schedules of commitments. Since 1997, the number of members that have undertaken market access commitments on telecommunications and subscribed to the Reference Paper has continued to increase as a result of new governments joining WTO through the process of accession. Under the JSI negotiations, participants are discussing a proposal that seeks to update the provisions of the Reference Paper.

Digital standards (1)

International standards are important to the global digital economy as they can enable interconnectivity and interoperability for telecommunications and internet infrastructures. The WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT Agreement) aims to ensure that technical regulations, standards, and conformity assessment procedures affecting trade in goods (including telecommunications products) are non-discriminatory and do not create unnecessary obstacles to trade. The TBT Agreement strongly encourages that such regulatory measures be based on relevant international standards. The TBT Committee serves as a forum where governments discuss and address concerns with specific regulations, including those affecting digital trade. Examples of relevant TBT measures notified to or discussed at the TBT Committee include (1) measures addressing the internet of things (IoT) and related devices in terms of their safety, interoperability, national security/cybersecurity, performance, and quality; (2) measures regulating 5G cellular network technology for reasons related to, among others, national security and interoperability; (3) measures regulating 3D printing (additive manufacturing) devices; (4) measures regulating drones (small unmanned aircraft systems) due to risks for humans/consumers, interoperability problems, and national security risks; and (5) measures dealing with autonomous vehicles, mostly concerned with their safety and performance.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity issues have been addressed in several WTO bodies. For example, the TBT Committee has discussed national cybersecurity regulations applicable to information and communications technology (ICT) products and their potential impact on trade. In the TBT Committee, WTO members have raised specific trade concerns related to cybersecurity regulations. Some of the specific issues discussed include how cybersecurity regulations discriminating against foreign companies and technologies can negatively impact international trade in ICT products. Proposals on cybersecurity have also been tabled in the JSI on e-commerce where negotiations are ongoing.

Data governance

The growth of the global digital economy is fuelled by data. Discussions on how provisions of WTO agreements apply to data flows are ongoing among WTO members. In this context, is particularly relevant, as it applies to trade in services such as (1) data transmission and data processing by any form of technology (e.g. mobile or cloud technologies); (2) new ICT business models such as infrastructure as a service (IaaS); (3) online distribution services e.g. (e-commerce market platforms); and (4) financial services such as mobile payments. The extent to which members can impose restrictions on data or information flows affecting trade in services is determined by their GATS schedules of commitments. Under the JSI, proposals on cross-border data flows have been submitted and are being discussed. These proposals envision a general rule establishing the free flow of data for commercial activities. Proposed exceptions to this general rule are, to a large extent, similar to the existing GATS General and Security Exceptions and relate to, for example, protection of personal data, protection of legitimate public policy objectives, national security interests, and exclusion of governmental data. Issues related to data flows have also been raised by members in other contexts at the WTO, such as in the Council for Trade in Services, for instance, when national cybersecurity measures adopted have been considered by some members as trade barriers.

Intellectual property rights

The TRIPS Agreement is a key international instrument for the protection of IP and is of relevance to e-commerce. The technologies that underpin the internet and enable digital commerce such as software, routers, networks, switches, and user interfaces are protected by IP. In addition, e-commerce transactions can involve digital products with IP-protected content, such as e-books, software, or blueprints for 3D-printing. As IP licences often regulate the usage rights for such intangible digital products, the TRIPS Agreement and the international IP Conventions provide much of the legal infrastructure for digital trade.

These conventions include:

The role of IP in promoting innovation and trade in the digital age has been highlighted in recent WTO World Trade Reports.

IP-related issues are also being discussed in the JSI. Submitted proposals include text on limiting requests to the access or transfer of source code. The source code or the data analysis used in the operation of programmes or services is often legally protected by IP law through copyright, patent, or trade secret provisions. The main goal of the JSI proposals on access to source code is to prevent members from requiring access or transfer of the source code owned by a national of another member state as a condition for market access. Some exceptions to this general prohibition have also been proposed. For example, for software that is used for critical infrastructures and public procurement transactions.

Electronic commerce

WTO agreements cover a broad spectrum of trade topics, including some related to e-commerce, which has been on the WTO agenda since 1998 when the ministers adopted the Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce. The Declaration instructed the General Council to establish a Work Programme on electronic commerce. In that Declaration, members also agreed to continue the practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions (the ’moratorium’). The Work Programme provides a broad definition of e-commerce and instructs four WTO bodies (Council for Trade in Goods; Council for Trade in Services; TRIPS Council; and the Committee on Trade and Development) to explore the relationship between WTO Agreements and e-commerce. The Work Programme and the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions have been periodically reviewed and renewed. At its recently concluded 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in June 2022, WTO members agreed to reinvigorate the Work Programme, particularly in line with its development dimension, and to intensify discussions on the moratorium, including on its scope, definition, and impact. Furthermore, members agreed to extend the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions until MC13 (2).

At MC11 in 2017, a group of members issued the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on E-Commerce to explore work towards future WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of e-commerce. Following the exploratory work, in January 2019, 76 members confirmed their ‘intention to commence WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce’ and to ‘achieve a high standard out- come that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks with the participation of as many WTO members as possible’. Negotiations are continuing among 87 members (3) and are structured under 6 broad themes, namely enabling e-commerce, openness and e-commerce, trust and e-commerce, cross-cutting issues, telecommunications, and market access. JSI participants have reached a high degree of convergence on e-authentication and e-signatures, e-contracts, open government data, online consumer protection, unsolicited commercial electronic messages (spam), transparency, open internet access and paperless trading. Negotiations on electronic transactions frameworks, source code, cybersecurity, electronic invoicing, privacy, telecommunications, and customs duties on electronic transmissions continue. On the margins of the MC12, the co-convenors of the JSI (Australia, Japan, and Singapore), issued a statement underlining the importance of developing global rules on e-commerce and, together with Switzerland, launched the E-commerce Capacity Building Framework to strengthen digital inclusion and to help developing and least developed countries to harness the opportunities of digital trade.

Access (4)

Information Technology Agreement (ITA-I and ITA-II)

The ITA-I was concluded by 29 participants in 1996. Through this agreement, participating WTO members eliminated tariffs and other duties and charges (ODCs) on hundreds of ICT products – including computers, laptops, servers, routers, communication devices (i.e. mobile telephones),  semiconductors, semiconductor manufacturing equipment and parts thereof – to foster the development of ICT global value chains and facilitate greater adoption of the ICT products that lie at the core of a global digital economy and power the downstream innovative and competitive capacity of every industry that deploys them. Currently, 83 WTO members are participants in ITA-I, accounting for approximately 97% of world trade in ITA-I products. As technology continues to evolve, ICT is found at the core of an ever-increasing range of products. At the MC10 in Nairobi in 2015, over 50 WTO members concluded ITA-II negotiations and agreed to expand the ITA product coverage by around 200 products. ICT products such as GPS navigation equipment, satellites, and medical equipment were included and tariffs on these products have been eliminated among ITA-II participants. At present, the ITA-II consists of 55 WTO members, representing over 90% of world trade in ITA-II products. The ITA is being discussed in the JSI under the market access focus group.

Social medial channels

Facebook @WorldTradeOrganization

Flickr @WorldTradeOrganization

Instagram @worldtradeorganization

Twitter @wto

YouTube @WorldTradeOrganization

1-The issue of digital standards is addressed as ‘standards and regulations’ within the work of WTO.

2-WT/MIN(22)/32; WT/L/1143

3-87 Members as of end of September 2022: Albania; Argentina; Australia; Austria; Bahrain, Kingdom of; Belgium; Benin; Brazil; Brunei Darussalam; Bulgaria; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Canada; Chile; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; Côte D’Ivoire; Croatia; Cyprus; Czech Republic; Denmark; Ecuador; El Salvador; Estonia; Finland; France; Georgia; Germany; Greece; Guatemala;Honduras; Hong Kong, China; Hungary; Iceland; Indonesia; Ireland; Israel; Italy; Japan; Kazakhstan; Kenya; Korea, Republic of; Kuwait, the State of; Latvia; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Liechtenstein; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Malaysia; Malta; Mauritius; Mexico; Moldova, Republic of; Mongolia; Montenegro; Myanmar; Netherlands; New Zealand; Nicaragua; Nigeria; North Macedonia; Norway; Panama; Paraguay; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Portugal; Qatar; Romania; Russian Federation; Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of; Singapore; Slovak Republic; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu; Thailand; Turkey; Ukraine; United Arab Emirates; United Kingdom; United States; and Uruguay

4-The issue of arbitration is referred to under the issue of ‘market access’ within the work of WTO.



Skip to content