WTO Members have engaged for years in debate over the wisdom of extending the temporary moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce. Each Ministerial Conference has resulted in Members agreeing to an extension of the moratorium until the next Ministerial Conference along with an extension of a moratorium on non-violation TRIPs disputes. While Members have agreed to a draft extension of the moratorium on non-violation TRIPs disputes for the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial, there is no agreement as yet on extending the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce. See WTO News Release, Members agree on recommendation to extend moratorium on IP “non-violation” cases, 5 November 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/trip_05nov21a_e.htm; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, India, South Africa question WTO e-commerce moratorium ahead of MC12, November 9, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/india-south-africa-question-wto-e-commerce-moratorium-ahead-mc12.
In recent years, India and South Africa have cited to information from UNCTAD to support their concern that the moratorium is costing developing countries tax revenues as well as their concern that the moratorium is limited to transmission and not content and doesn’t apply to services. See WORK PROGRAMME ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE, THE MORATORIUM ON CUSTOMS DUTIES ON ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS: NEED FOR CLARITY ON ITS SCOPE AND IMPACT, 8 November 2021, WT/GC/W/833 (communication from India and South Africa); WORK PROGRAMME ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE, THE E-COMMERCE MORATORIUM: SCOPE AND IMPACT, Communication from India and South Africa, 11 March 2020, WT/GC/W/798; UNCTAD, RISING PRODUCT DIGITALISATION AND LOSING TRADE COMPETITIVENESS, 2017, https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/gdsecidc2017d3_en.pdf; UNCTAD Research Paper No. 29, UNCTAD/SER.RP/2019/1, Rashmi Banga, Growing Trade in Electronic Transmissions: Implications for the South, February 2019, https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ser-rp-2019d1_en.pdf.
Some of the concerns expressed by India and South Africa and their rebuttal of OECD and other papers which look at upside benefits from the moratorium are captured in the following excerpt from the recent submission (WT/GC?W/833, pages 2-3).
“2.2 Tariff Revenue Loss
“2.4. In our previous submission, WT/GC/W/798, we highlighted that based on the identification of a small number of digitizable goods in five areas, namely, printed matter, music and video downloads, software and video games, UNCTAD estimated a loss in tariff revenue of more than US$10 billion per annum globally because of the moratorium, 95% of which is borne by
“2.5. These submissions attempt to make the revenue foregone on account of the e-commerce moratorium seem insignificant by showcasing this revenue loss in terms of its share in customs revenue and total government revenue. However, even compared in this manner, it is evident that the percentage of government revenue lost for developing countries is higher than that for the
developed countries. The percentage of customs revenue lost for developing countries is 4.35% while that for the developed countries is a mere 0.24%. It is evident that the cost of the moratorium is almost completely borne by the developing countries for extending duty free quota free market access, largely for the developed countries.
“2.6. These submissions conclude that the amount of physical trade replaced by 3D printing is expected to be limited. UNCTAD (2019) provides a deeper analysis on the status of 3D printing though. It indicates that while 3D printing is currently at a nascent stage in developing countries, its market has grown annually by 22% in the period 2014-2018 and it is estimated that if investment
in 3D printing is doubled, it could potentially replace almost 40% of cross-border physical global trade by 20407. Such a growth is expected to significantly increase the potential tariff revenue loss.
“2.3 Impact on SMEs and Digital Industrialization
“2.7. Interestingly, when assessing the total trade of electronic transmissions, these submissions consider only digitizable goods and conclude that these remain modest but when estimating the impact of the moratorium on exports, especially of SMEs, these submissions considers the extended scope of the moratorium by including services8 and find the impact to be huge. Defining the scope of the moratorium is therefore important in order to estimate its impact.
“2.8. These submissions state that the use of 3D printing is growing slowly since the opportunities for mass production and economies of scale are limited and the inputs, materials and time required for 3D printing further constrain its use for manufacturing complex items. In this context, it is highlighted that with recent technological advances, namely high-speed sintering, mass production is becoming possible with 3D printers, where mass-producing up to 100,000 (smaller) components
in a day will be possible at a speed which is 100 times faster9. According to D’Aveni (2015)10, the advent of additive manufacturing in the US hearing aid industry meant that, in less than 500 days, 100% of the industry was transformed and not one company stuck to the traditional mode of manufacturing.
“2.9. These submissions do not reflect the impact that new technologies such as 3D printing can have on domestic industries especially MSMEs in developing countries. As outlined before, while 3D printing is currently at a nascent stage in developing countries, its market is expected to grow at a rapid pace. The most affected sectors could include sectors such as textiles and clothing, footwear, auto-components, toys, mechanical appliances, and hand tools, etc. which generate large scale employment for low skilled workers and are sectors in which most MSMEs operate. This could have a catastrophic effect on the ability of developing countries to protect their nascent domestic industries including MSMEs11.
“2.10. If, ‘customs duties on electronic transmissions’ cover not only digitised and digitizable goods but also digitally transmitted services, as asserted by a couple of institutions recently, then the negative impact of continuing with the moratorium on developing countries would be even greater. Effectively, this implies that the economy of the future (the digital economy) is totally liberalised. History has shown that trade policies are integral to successful economies’ development trajectory and are critical in advancing industrial policy.
“7 UNCTAD Research Paper No 47 (2020).
“8 UNCTAD Research Paper No 58 (2021).
“10 Richard D’Aveni, ‘The 3-D Printing Revolution’ (2015) Harvard Business Review
https://hbr.org/2015/05/the-3-d-printing-revolution accessed 1 June 2021.
“11 UNCTAD Research Paper No 58 (2021).”
There are many WTO Members who support the continuation of the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce, and there have been studies by the OECD taking a position opposite that of UNCTAD. See, e.g., WORK PROGRAMME ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE BROADENING AND DEEPENING THE DISCUSSIONS ON THE MORATORIUM ON IMPOSING CUSTOMS DUTIES ON ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS, Communication from Australia; Canada; Chile; Colombia; Hong Kong, China;
Iceland; Republic of Korea; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; Thailand and Uruguay, 29 June 2020, WT/GC/W/799/Rev.1; Andrenelli, A. and J. López González (2019-11-13), “Electronic transmissions and international trade – shedding new light on the moratorium debate”, OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 233, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/57b50a4b-en. An excerpt from the submission of various WTO Members in WT/GC/W/799/Rev.1 is presented below characterizing some of the OECD analysis (pages 2-3).
“3 AN INSIGHTFUL WELFARE ANALYSIS OF ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS
“3.1. Members have been referring to many different estimates in past discussions on this matter, which did not take into consideration the benefits associated with relevant reductions of trade costs, potential gains in productivity and increased consumer welfare. The welfare analysis in the study provides a clear illustration of what is induced by the absence of duties on electronic transmissions in terms of both revenue loss and the welfare surplus for consumers. Taking into consideration consumer welfare would bring depth to the discussion and could help move them forward.
“3.2. The welfare analysis outlines that the reduction in production and transportation costs associated with digital deliveries, as well as the removal of the tariff, can lead to a reduction in price. In consequence, the increase in demand leads to a rise in imports and an increase in consumer surplus, part of which is associated with redistribution from the domestic producer and part of which is from government revenue to the consumer. The study is unambiguous: the overall impact to the economy is ‘positive and large’.
“3.3. The study finds that the imposition of equivalent duties on electronic transmissions could negate those positive effects by increasing the price of the digital delivery, which shifts some of the consumer welfare back to the domestic producers and the government. Governments and producers would recover some of the revenue foregone but the amount recovered would depend on the elasticity of demand. The study also highlights that this would occur at the expense of consumer surplus. The positive welfare impact would decrease as the price of the digital product increases. Consequently, by introducing equivalent duties on electronic transmissions, governments would create a “deadweight loss” to the economy. The overall benefits associated with digitization
(i.e. lower trade costs) would be reduced and weaker economies would miss an opportunity to overcome their trade cost disadvantages.
“4 THE APPLICATION OF INTERNAL NON-DISCRIMINATORY TAXES AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO TARIFFS
“4.1. The study not only provides important elements regarding who bears the burden of tariffs, but also regarding the potential alternative sources of government revenue which would be better suited to the digital economy. The study notes that tariffs increase the price of a product to the domestic consumer. The extent to which the domestic price increases is dependent on the tariff pass-through, which ranges from full pass-through to none. If there is no pass-through, then the foreign company fully absorbs the tariff through reduced revenue. If there is full pass-through, then the domestic price increases in proportion to the tariff. Recent work quoted by the study notes that quasi complete-pass tends to be the most common – that is, foreign companies fully pass-on the price increase to domestic consumers. Moreover, recent work conveyed in the study has also demonstrated that tariff increases, in the medium-term, negatively affect domestic output and productivity, employment and lead to higher inequality and real exchange rate appreciation.
“4.2. The study highlights other means for governments to generate revenue. The use of consumption taxes, such as value added taxes (VAT) or goods and services taxes (GST) could represent a better alternative. Examples of VAT/GST applied to digital services and intangibles are provided and point out that internal non-discriminatory taxes provide a broader tax base, and thus more stable. According to the study, evidence indicates developing countries that adopt indirect taxes such as VAT experience 40 to 50% less tax revenue instability than countries that do not use indirect taxes. The OECD study suggests that consumption taxes are a feasible alternative to customs duties for generating revenue.
“4.3. In this respect, it should be noted that the OECD International VAT/GST Guidelines have been adopted by the G20 leaders and endorsed by more than 100 jurisdictions and organisations. Furthermore, the OECD has produced a report on best practices to implement international VAT/GST collection schemes.2
“2 Mechanisms for the Effective Collection of VAT/GST, OECD, 2017 http://www.oecd.org/tax/consumption/mechanisms-for-the-effective-collection-of-vat-gst.htm.”
A recent report by Prof. Simon J. Evenett
On November 12, 2021, Prof. Simon Evenett (founder of the St. Gallen Endowment for Prosperity Through Trade) released a paper looking at the question, “Is the WTO Moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce depriving developing countries of much needed revenue?”. The abstract for the paper states –
“Abstract This note vitiates assertions by UNCTAD staff that developing countries have lost significant government revenues as products previously delivered physically are supplied digitally. Taking for the sake of argument UNCTAD’s revenue loss estimates, this note shows that they represent small shares of tax revenues from sources other than customs duties. Forgone revenues would have financed less than 5 days of government spending in the Least Developed Countries and Sub-Saharan African nations. Moreover, domestic tax takes needed only to grow marginally faster to offset UNCTAD’s estimates of forgone customs duties. Low per-capita income status is not a barrier to successful national tax reform, calling in question the relevance of public finance objections to participation in multilateral trade initiatives to integrate economies.”
The paper from Prof. Evenett is embedded below.S.-Evenett_-WTO-Moratorium-12-Nov-2021_-finalised
There are obviously large differences in view on the costs and benefits of a moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce between India and South Africa on the one hand (and others supporting their view) and the group of WTO Members supporting the continuation of the moratorium.
A problem with the UNCTAD studies and papers is the definition of developing countries used. As is clear from the 2017 UNCTAD report, the largest cross border e-commerce sales for any country by far is China with 40% of such sales in 2015 (UNCTAD, Rising Product Digitalisation and Losing Trade Competitiveness, 2017 at 12) and largest customs revenue loss from the moratorium (id at 16). China should not be viewed as a developing country as reviewed in a recent post. See November 15, 2021: The folly of self-selection as a developing country at the WTO, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/15/the-folly-of-self-selection-as-a-developing-country-at-the-wto/. Moreover, China is not understood to be opposing the continuation of the moratorium.
The UNCTAD report also lists as developing countries a number which clearly aren’t classified as such or that shouldn’t be, including — Saudi Arabia, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Romania, Russian Federation, Iceland, Bulgaria, Mexico, Norway, Thailand, Turkey, Portugal (see id, Table 2, Net Exports of Developing Countries of ET Products, pages 13-14; November 15, 2021: The folly of self-selection as a developing country at the WTO, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/15/the-folly-of-self-selection-as-a-developing-country-at-the-wto/).
While WTO Members should be concerned about the digital divide that exists for some Members, the answer to addressing the divide is not to erect barriers to e-commerce. Rather Members should focus on technical assistance and other actions to help least developed countries and some developing countries who are behind develop the infrastructure and technical skills to actively participate in e-commerce.
Extending the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce is one more hurdle in front of WTO Members as they get ready for the 12th Ministerial Conference which starts in 12 days.