Divides deepen - blog 6 from WTO

Divides deepen - blog 6 from WTO

Lesson of the first full day of the WTO Ministerial: we have a deeply divided world. Not least with regards digitalisation, e-commerce and the strategies to move the world forward.

Am comfortably benched with lounge music in the background in the hotel bar writing this post as the first full day of WTO negotiations wraps up. On reflection the keyword of the day is: division.

On the one hand we have dedicated, committed, well-informed and knowledgeable NGO and union representatives stuck in an albeit grand building on one side of the channel. On the other side of the channel, we have the car-free security-covered zone of the delegates. Stuck in fine buildings with waterfront restaurants, special entry doors and secret meeting rooms. An unnecessary, provocative separation manifested in the channel that runs between us. 

A digital division

But also a division of ideologies, of power and degree of digitalisation amongst the countries present here. Basically a division between those countries and regions who are digital, and those who aren't, with a few wannabe's camping out with the digi-savy making things look more murky than they really are.

Let me give an example. The EU is one of the strongest proponents of an e-commerce agreement that will ensure a free flow of data across the world, eliminate provisions in trade agreements that ensure that developing countries get access to new technologies from foreign investors and prohibit requirements that foreign investors establish themselves physically in the country they want to sell products or services in. The EU Delegation in a very obvious campaign to get the developing world to agree to this.  

But why should the developing world? With over 50% of the world's population who still do not have access to the internet, and the majority of these millions of people living in developing countries, why o why would these countries want to sign up for the free flow of this valuable resource called data: the oil of the digital economy? It isn't going to flow their way now is it? On the contrary, whatever data is produced, will flow out of these countries and into the digitally-developed ones - or rather into the deep pockets of Big Tech. And we are not talking about an insignificant resource here: In just 2 years, it is estimated that a whopping 15-20% of the world's combined GDP will be based on data flows.

So the EU wants something, others can't even give. And when they can one day give it, they will still be digital light-years behind the Google's and Amazon's who are already monopolising the digital economy. Or rather, they will already be at the mercy of Big Tech as these companies rather than public investment funds through the IMF, the World Bank and others are "helping" the Global South build digital infrastructures against one condition: Big Tech gets to own the data.

ITUC/UNI seminar on e-commerce 

We discussed these issues at a well-visited seminar organised by ITUC and UNI. The participants had many good comments and questions, not least on how to bridge the digitaldivide. Now ok - there weren't any government officials or delegates in the room (the channel running between us and them being a seemingly effective barrier) but still. Nobody argued against the fact that we all should focus on enabling access to the internet for all before we start regulating or deregulating the valuable flow of the produce of internet access: data. If only the EU delegation and other supporters of the e-commerce rules being pushed here at the WTO had be bothered to come - maybe even they would have gained a few additional insights?