New article on WTO E-commerce talks labels proposals digital colonialism

July 11, 2019: A new article by Deborah James at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research has criticised the attempt by industrialised countries to use the WTO to establish new e-commerce rules that would increase the power of Big Tech corporations and restrict developing countries' digital industrialisation.

Official WTO negotiations on e-commerce were blocked by African governments at the eleventh WTO Ministerial Meeting in Buenos Aires in 2017. However, discussions have continued despite the lack of mandate, and delegates from 76 countries convened the first talks on a “plurilateral” agreement on digital trade in the WTO in March 2019.

James criticised suggestions that e-commerce discussions were good for development, women or small and medium sized enterprises, arguing that these rules would consolidate industrialised countries’ control of the digital economy and reinforce big tech monopolies. She labeled tech corporations' attempts to extract data for profit and use trade rules to prevent governments to regulate the digital economy as digital colonialism.

James argues that e-commerce rules could:

  • undermine consumer protections, privacy, and rights.
  • undermine workers’ rights by reinforcing labour exploitation models in corporations like Uber and Amazon.
  • Prevent government oversight of algorithmic decision-making, which can exacerbate racial, gender, and labor discrimination.
  • Constrain taxation of big tech companies and other global corporations

James argues that contrary to the rules being proposed through the WTO discussions we need more regulation of Big Tech corporations and the digital economy. She also highlighted the need for WTO discussions to address developing country priorities such as the transformation of trade and agriculture rules and the need for more flexibility for developing countries to enable economic development and industrialisation.