Even as India and many countries, especially from Africa, have been opposing attempts by nations including China to initiate negotiations on e-commerce rule-making at the World Trade Organisation, Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, sprang a surprise by saying the sector wasn’t yet ripe for regulation and that rules could be made may be a decade from now.
“We need regulations may be 10 years later… ,” Mr. Ma, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, said at a ‘new initiative designed to drive public-private dialogue on e-commerce’ that was unveiled on Monday by the WTO, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP). The unveiling took place here on the sidelines of the WTO's Ministerial Conference.
Recalling the time when he was engaged in starting an e-commerce firm in the 1990s, Mr. Ma said there were several experts then who could not even comprehend the significance of the sector but were keen to regulate e-commerce and bring out laws that would virtually stop the growth of the then infant sector, due to their ‘unfounded’ fears over its negative impact. He said, however, e-commerce had since grown into a major sector providing employment to millions, helped several small firms go global and improved the logistics sector.
Mr. Ma said as a budding technology entrepreneur then, he had decided that “whether they make rules or not, I will do it [start an e-commerce company]… Let policy makers worry about this and that.” He also said his “lifetime job now is to promote e-commerce. If you [policymakers] like it, I will move ahead. If you don’t like it, I will still move ahead.”
Mr. Ma said incentives to promote e-commerce and efforts to fight counterfeit goods were needed now.
Taking a dig at the WTO’s “thick” rule-book (on global trade), he said it was written at a time when the Internet did not exist. He added that an extremely thin and simple version of it was needed.
However, Indian officials were not amused. They told The Hindu that such statements could be an indirect attempt to get WTO members to soon begin e-commerce negotiations. The sources said out of the estimated $25 trillion global e-commerce market, the trans-border component was only 5% — meaning the balance constituted domestic e-commerce trade. So, what is needed now is not rule-making on e-commerce at the WTO-level, but at the national-level. Besides, they added that China, the U.S, the U.K, France, Germany and Japan, account for a vast majority of the e-commerce market and hence, any agreement on e-commerce rules will benefit only them.
India and the African Group countries opine that discussions on e-commerce at the WTO should be limited to the current structure of the ‘Work Programme’.
At the WTO-eWTP-WEF e-commerce event, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said, “This could be the greatest force for inclusion in the global economy that the world has ever seen. But inclusion is not automatic.”
He added that without the right approach, big players could dominate the market at the expense of smaller businesses. “Poorer countries could be left behind. If we want it to be inclusive, we have to work at it.”
( The writer is in Buenos Aires at the invitation of India’s Commerce Ministry )