Letter: WTO meeting must renew ban on data flow rights

Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commissioner for Trade, pleads in favor of launching a concerted effort to reform the World Trade Organization (“We must not miss this opportunity to reform the WTO”, Opinion, 26 November).

More than two decades after its last major overhaul, WTO rules are certainly ripe for renewal – not least, as Dombrovskis rightly notes, to maximize the contribution of trade to achieving global climate goals.

But this should not be interpreted as suggesting that all is rotten in the state of the WTO: in fact, preserving key elements of the multilateral trading system will be an equally important task for trade ministers in Geneva this week.

In particular, ministers will have to decide whether or not to renew the WTO moratorium on electronic commerce. This technical agreement has played a central, but often overlooked, role in the expansion of the Internet by keeping cross-border data flows duty-free.

Despite the compelling logic of preserving this status quo, it is deeply worrying that negotiations over the future of the moratorium appear to be hanging on a razor sharp edge with just a few days to reach an agreement.

Many social media stars have metaphorically claimed in recent years that their content has “broken the internet.” It is by no means an exaggeration to suggest that trade ministers might inadvertently do this in a much more real way if the WTO ban on imposing duties on data flows expires.

John WH Denton
Secretary General, International Chamber of Commerce, Paris, France

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