The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC, is tackling the issue of electronic commerce and the Internet. APEC leaders, now converging on Brunei for an annual summit, are expected to explore issues such as who should make rules for electronic commerce and the problems posed by what has come to be called the "digital divide" between the wired and unwired nations.
With the click of a computer button, E-commerce transcends national boundaries. And because it is so new, it is relatively unregulated.
APEC says that should change. It is asking the World Trade Organization the body charged with enacting international trading rules to start looking at setting up a legal framework on computerized transactions across the Internet.
Speaking to a small group of reporters Tuesday, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky says there are a great many questions raised by the e-commerce phenomenon and the WTO had better start dealing with them. "Other than IPR, intellectual property rights, WTO rules relate to the movement typically of tangible goods. Well, what do you do in a digitized economy? What happens? Where's the sale? Whose contract prevails? Where's the legal redress?" Barshefsky also aked: "What about nondiscrimination? What about transparency? What happens to product standards? Are there product standards? Is something that is digitized and downloaded over the 'Net a good or is it a service? What is it? That matters, because WTO rules in these various areas differ wildly." E-commerce and Internet access has exploded across Asia. According to U.S. figures, Internet access has in the past three years more than tripled in China, more than doubled in Malaysia and Korea, and grown by half in Vietnam. But the actual usage in countries varies widely. In some economies, more than 40 percent of the population uses the Internet. In others, less than one percent use it.
APEC members have agreed not to place restrictions on the use and development of e-commerce to create what might be called a kind of duty free cyberspace. Ms. Barshefsky says this is an important development. "This is very significant because this is a principle not yet agreed in the WTO, to which there is some developing country resistance in the WTO. But having the APEC countries agree that there should be no burden on the use and development of e-commerce is a very important beachhead for us in this next great area of trade, which is e-commerce and the 'Net."
Access remains a crucial issue. The technology is advancing rapidly, but many poorer countries have not caught up, causing what has come to be called the "digital divide." Ms. Barshefsky says APEC ministers have reached no solutions to propose to their leaders, but the issue is one of deep concern. "This digital divide issue, I can't say there were any grand solutions posed. But it's obviously of concern. You all know it's a concern in the U.S., as it is within Europe, the haves and have-nots with respect to availability and accessibility of the new technologies and so on. Globally, the problem is actually even more acute."
APEC members are making use of the Internet themselves, putting their own economic action plans online so potential investors will be able to compare different economies' plans for cutting tariffs and reducing trade barriers.