Ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) major advanced and emerging economies met in the German city of Düsseldorf from 6-7 April for talks on how to expand internet access and support the development of the digital economy, including through trade.
This meeting of “digital economy ministers” marks a notable first for the G20, building on earlier work within that framework under the previous Chinese presidency of the group on trying to build cooperation among governments in this area. The event led to the issuing of a declaration entitled “Shaping Digitalisation for an Interconnected World.”
“The impact of digital transformation on our economies and lives is already vast and continues to grow, however, in many respects remains unknown,” says the ministerial declaration, highlighting the economic and labour market opportunities and challenges that can emerge from an increasingly digital world.
It also notes the value that the digital economy can have in supporting sustainable development efforts, including through the Agenda 2030 adopted under the United Nations framework in late 2015. Along with a ministerial declaration, G20 officials also signed off on a roadmap regarding “policies for a digital future,” as well as annexes on using digital technology in supporting educational advancement, along with future work on the subject of digital trade.
Furthermore, it refers to the importance of collaborating with ministers from other policy disciplines, such as agriculture, finance, employment, and development, among others. “We, the ministers responsible for the digital economy, also recognise that digitalisation touches upon areas outside of our responsibility and welcome the work of our colleagues,” the declaration says.
“Our three key goals are fast internet for all by 2025, harmonised technical standards, and lifelong digital education,” said Brigitte Zypries, Germany’s Economic Affairs Minister ahead of the ministerial meeting. “We want to prepare the breeding ground based on which the next presidencies can issue digital guidelines.”
“This debate has shown that, over recent months, we’ve come closer to developing a joint understanding of what the challenges of digitisation are,” said German State Secretary Matthias Machnig, who joined Zypries in presenting the ministerial declaration the following day.
Expanding access, building skills
The roadmap issued last week focuses mainly on boosting access and use of digital technologies; developing and investing in a better digital infrastructure; improving internal government coordination on the digital economy; and supporting greater competition.
“Today, with only one in two people in the world connected to the Internet and underrepresented or disadvantaged groups facing particular challenges, we need to intensify our efforts towards bridging all aspects of the digital divide so that everyone has the opportunity to reap the benefits of the digital economy,” the declaration preceding the roadmap says.
“As part of the last G20 presidency, we had agreed that another 1.5 billion people would have to be connected to the internet by 2020; today, we have put another figure there. We have said that by 2025 we want every person in the world to have access to the internet,” said Zypries at a press conference presenting the declaration and its associated roadmap.
The actions associated with the roadmap’s goals focus mainly on sharing information and best practices across these various areas, along with pushing for greater digital economy investment, including in infrastructure. Ministers have also backed continued efforts to connect communities that are lacking in internet access and building the digital literacy and skill sets of their societies.
Other items on the docket include supporting a more accessible business climate for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), noting that one way is to make it easier for those companies to access funding and technology. Ministers say they will also continue discussions on how to improve trust in the areas of privacy and security risks, while also supporting online consumer protection.
The upcoming Argentine presidency of the G20 has said that it will continue working to advance the roadmap’s goals through the group’s dedicated task force on the digital economy.
The declaration annex specific to the topic of digital trade outlines a set of areas that ministers have termed to be priorities for their future work. The annex is split into three areas, involving how to quantify this type of trade; how to support international frameworks that can facilitate the development of the digital economy; and how to address the needs of developing economies who face hurdles when participating in digital trade.
The annex looks at some of the existing problems in mapping the digital trading landscape, and urges G20 members and international agencies to undertake the necessary steps to understand these issues further in order to facilitate future work.
Officials said that including a section on digital trade is essential toward supporting the larger digital economy, along with ensuring that this can lead to the creation of new jobs and boosting economic growth.
“It is quite clear that digital transformation is a global movement and if you think about it nationally, then you’ve already made your first mistake. So it was very important to us to really pick up on this issue of digital trade and within our declaration we have committed to creating inclusive growth and employment through digital trade,” said Zypries.
On the subject of quantifying digital trade, ministers said that they back continued work in this area, including through a joint task force under the umbrella of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Other recommendations to international agencies included putting forward proposals on developing a “common understanding” on the nature of digital trade that can evolve with the rapid pace of technology; along with addressing any current failings in developing statistics in this area. They have also urged these agencies to explore which areas could potentially yield “early progress” with additional work.
This feedback from international organisations could contribute to the work underway within the Trade and Investment Working Group (TIWG) for when Argentina takes the helm of the G20, according to the annex. That working group is set to continue its work on digital trade in the upcoming year.
Ministers have said they will continue to examine within the TIWG the relationship between development and digital trade, while also discussing best practices regarding the latter. They have also asked that the “relevant international organisations, within their respective mandates… prepare a report to the TIWG under the upcoming Argentinian G20 presidency.”
This document, they say, could look at ways to slash trade barriers in the digital space, along with unpacking the reasons behind “digital trade readiness.” Such a report could also look to supporting the “performance” of developing economies in this area.
In the area of international frameworks, the annex makes specific references to work under the WTO, noting the role of e-commerce in the implementation of the organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA); pledging “constructive engagement” by all G20 members in the e-commerce discussions in preparation for the WTO’s next ministerial conference this December in Argentina; and efforts to build on the latest “appraisal” of the organisation’s Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM).
G20 members include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the European Union. The varied group has historically had different interests and viewpoints on the e-commerce discussions in the WTO context.
Regarding the TPRM, the latest appraisal was approved last December, and included discussions on how e-commerce related policies could be addressed in the reports that the WTO’s secretariat prepares for members’ respective trade policy reviews, along with possible reporting by the member under scrutiny if they so choose.
Lastly, the G20 document notes that developing and least developed countries need additional support when engaging in this new digital trading landscape, such as through better skills, more infrastructure, and “predictable” regulations.