U.S. Calls for Global E-Commerce Rules

An ambitious plan to knock down e-commerce trade barriers and to create a set of international rules that ensure fair competition in the rapidly evolving e-commerce sector was unveiled Monday by U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky.

Speaking before the Federal Communications Bar Association in Washington, D.C., Barshefsky called for “the adjustment of trade policy to the emergence of a new world of science and technology.”

According to Barshefsky, “This new initiative will create a lasting set of rules and agreements which help to ensure that the trading system provides for electronic business the same guarantees of freedom, fair competition, respect for intellectual property rights and access to markets that more conventional commerce enjoys.”

The Clinton administration plans to present the “Networked World” initiative to international trade groups, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Challenges and Rewards

Saying that “we see the seeds of the 22nd-century economy in the explosive growth of the Internet,” Barshefsky told the assembled lawyers that if the new networked economy reaches its full potential, it will make firms and national economies more efficient, make trade and international business easier, and “raise living standards as consumers gain new power to compare price and quality among vendors all over the world.”

Whether or not the new economy reaches its full potential depends, according to Barshefsky, on “an appropriate framework of policy: one which facilitates creativity and technological progress; one which also enables governments to fulfill their core responsibilities for public safety, consumer protection and national security.”

Gathering Steam

E-commerce has expanded at an exponential rate within the past year, growing from $200 billion (US$) in 1999 to $700 billion this year, Barshefsky said. She added that one of the challenges in the coming years is to anticipate and prevent the creation of new types of trade barriers, as well as removing existing barriers.

“We work, in some ways, for higher stakes: the agreements and rules we develop now will be the framework for the world economy of the coming decades,” Barshefsky said.

“As such, they can create incentives for creativity, growth and development; or they can widen technological divides among nations and limit progress everywhere,” Barshefsky added.

She stressed that because the Internet has no natural boundaries, “domestic policies must proceed together with international policies.”

Digital Downloads Discussed

Pointing out that the WTO has not yet decided whether digitally delivered goods — such as downloadable music and books — should be classified as goods, services, or “something new altogether,” Barshefsky said that whatever decision is reached “should not place digital products at a disadvantage in comparison to identical physically delivered products.”

The Clinton administration has called for a “global consensus” on a set of principles that will encourage advancements in technology and technological neutrality — meaning that the existing WTO agreements on non-discrimination, technical standards and services and goods trade should be applied fairly to e-commerce.

Resolution is also needed on the question of whether digital downloads should be considered imports.

Emerging Industries

Barshefsky said it is important for WTO agreements to keep pace with the emergence of new online services, including online auctions, Web-hosting services and remote monitoring.

“Through the WTO, as well as some of our regional initiatives, we will seek the broadest possible cross-border market access in services — building on the financial services and basic telecom agreements, and moving on to the professions, distribution, and much more — to realize the potential for firms to offer a full range of services over the telecommunications network,” Barshefsky said.

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