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WTO set to debate tariffs on $26.7trn in global e-commerce

For the past quarter century, the meteoric rise of the digital economy has been exempt from the kind of tariffs that apply to trade in physical goods.

 

According to Bloomberg, that era may come to a screeching halt this week as a handful of nations threaten to scrap an international ban on digital duties in a gamechanging bid to draw more revenue from the global e-commerce market that the United Nations estimated at $26.7 trillion.

 

If governments fail to reauthorize the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) e-commerce moratorium, it could open a new regulatory can of worms that could increase consumer prices for cross-border Amazon. com purchases, Netflix movies, Apple music, and Sony PlayStation games.

 

“Absent decisive action in the coming days, trade diplomats may inadvertently ‘break the internet’ as we know it today,” International Chamber of Commerce Secretary-General John Denton wrote in a Hill opinion piece published last week.

 

The WTO’s e-commerce agenda dates back to 1998, when nations agreed to avoid taxing  the then-fledgling market for digital trade. WTO members have periodically renewed that ban at their biennial ministerial meetings and are considering whether to do so again at this week’s gathering of ministers in Geneva.

 

But some nations like India and South Africa argue that the growth of the internet justifies a rethink about whether the WTO’s e-commerce moratorium remains in their economic interests. In 2020, they introduced a paper that said the moratorium prevents developing countries from gaining tariff revenue from transformative technologies like 3D printing, big-data analytics, and artificial intelligence.

 

While nations could draw somewhere between $280 million and $8.2 billion in annual customs revenue, new digital tariffs would also harm global growth by reducing economic output and productivity, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

 

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