E-commerce & digital trade

Electronic commerce (e-commerce) and digital trade refer to the trade of goods and services using the internet including the transmission of information and data across borders. DFAT and Austrade are working with countries around the world to ensure Australian businesses and consumers benefit from the immense opportunities that e-commerce and digital trade offer.

E-commerce is an increasingly important way for Australia to trade with the rest of the world, and opens up exciting opportunities for Australian businesses and consumers.

Around half of Australian businesses are already engaged in the digital economy in some way, and this number will grow further in the future. The 2016 Australian International Business Survey found that 47 per cent of respondents reported using e-commerce in some way. 60 per cent of these businesses used e-commerce to sell goods, 26 per cent used it to sell services and 14 per cent did both.

The Australian Government participates in global rule-making to shape and support an open digital economy. Governments have an important role to play in helping businesses (including small and medium enterprises) make the most of the digital economy while ensuring appropriate consumer and privacy protections.

What is DFAT doing to support e-commerce and digital trade?

As outlined in Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper and International Cyber Engagement Strategy, we advocate strongly for a rules-based and open global trading environment that supports the digitalisation of trade, builds trust and confidence in the online environment, and reduces barriers to digital trade.

In addition to negotiating rules to govern digital trade in the World Trade Organisation and through Free Trade Agreements, we also pursue these issues in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the G20 and the OECD.

Free trade agreements (FTAs)

Australia has e-commerce chapters in 10 of its 12 concluded FTAs:

Digital trade and e-commerce provisions will continue to be an important part of the FTAs that DFAT negotiates. Australia’s FTAs also support tariff reduction on technological inputs for businesses and consumers alongside rules that benefit investors in digital businesses.

The table below outlines some of the key objectives Australia pursues in its trade agreements to enable digital trade. These objectives are general, may change in specific negotiations, and are negotiated in the context that we are able to accommodate our policy sensitivities, including in regards to health, environment, consumer and privacy protections, and security.

Provision Description of discipline
Transparency Countries should make available to the public any measures related to e-commerce; including online. Also, to the extent possible, provide advance publication and opportunity to comment
Paperless trading Countries should provide for online availability of import and export documentation and electronic submission of those documents
Electronic authentication Countries should not deny a signature on the basis it is in electronic form, and should adopt a flexible approach to authentication technologies
Online consumer protection Countries should provide the same protections for online consumers as they do for any other consumer
Online protection of personal information Countries should adopt or maintain a legal framework to protect the personal information of electronic commerce users from unauthorised disclosure
Unsolicited commercial electronic messages (spam) Countries should adopt or maintain measures to allow consumers to opt out of receiving unwanted commercial messages from various sources (for example, email and SMS) from various sources and to provide that businesses only send such messages with the expressed or inferred consent of the consumer with the source of the messages identified
Customs duties on electronic transmissions Countries should continue the practice of not applying customs duties to electronic transmissions
Domestic regulatory frameworks/ domestic electronic transaction frameworks Countries should adopt or maintain legal frameworks consistent with the principles of the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model law on Electronic Commerce (1996) and the UN Convention on the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts (2005)
Localisation of computing facilities Countries should not require businesses operating in their territory to locate computing facilities (including computer servers and storage devices for processing or storing information for commercial use) within the country’s borders
Cross-border transfer of information by electronic means Countries should allow cross-border transfers of information by electronic means
Disclosure of source code Countries should not require the transfer of or access to mass-market software source code as a condition for the import, distribution, sale or use of software
Cooperation Governments should cooperate on areas of mutual interest in digital trade including on cyber security matters
Elimination of customs duties on technological products Countries should eliminate customs duties on technological business and consumer products through participation in the Information Technology Agreement, or products covered by that Agreement
Trade facilitation commitments Countries should continue to implement commitments made in the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and endeavour to build on those commitments to ensure the efficient movement of goods across borders
Commitments on performance requirements Countries should not require technological transfers as a condition of investment in another country

Multilateral discussions

Australia and other countries are increasingly working together on digital trade via groups such as the G20, World Trade Organisation (WTO), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD).

WTO E-commerce negotiations

On 26 January 2019, in the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Australia joined 75 other WTO Members, representing over 90 per cent of global trade, in launching negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce. Australia chairs these negotiations with co-convenors, Singapore and Japan. 

Members were invited to make submissions of draft text by 26 April and negotiations have been scheduled on a monthly basis through until the European summer. It is up to individual Members whether to make their submissions public. To date, Australia has not made a submission but we may do so in the future if necessary to pursue our interests.

From our stakeholder consultations on e-commerce to date, we know there is interest in facilitating digital trade and electronic transactions (eg paperless trading, single window, transparency, e-signatures), ensuring consumer protection (eg online consumer protection, SPAM, protection of personal information/privacy), and prohibiting restrictions on data flows, including localisation requirements. Making the WTO moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions permanent is also a key issue of interest.

To ensure our engagement continues to support Australian stakeholders to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the WTO E-commerce negotiations, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade wants to hear from you – business, NGOs, civil society, academia and individuals – on your experience and views on digital trade.

Please send submissions to digitaltrade@dfat.gov.au.

Other multilateral initiatives

WTO members agreed at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in December 2017 to extend the existing moratorium on imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions for another two years and to continue work under the existing WTO e-commerce work program, originally adopted under the Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce in 1998. Since then, the WTO's e-commerce work program has helped increase familiarity with digital trade, including with regard to eventual development of multilateral rules on e-commerce, and regulatory implications for Members.

Australia negotiated and implemented the WTO's Information Technology Agreement, which cuts tariffs on IT products to reduce costs for businesses and consumers.

Australia also played a pivotal role in negotiating the WTO's Trade Facilitation Agreement. This agreement promotes simpler, more harmonious international trade procedures, including online submission and payment systems for customs documents.

Our region has enormous potential for further digital trade growth. DFAT will continue taking part in multilateral, regional and bilateral e-commerce discussions to maximise the benefits for Australian businesses and consumers.

Government response to the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth report ‘Trade and the digital economy’ tabled

29 November 2019

The Government’s response to the report on the trade system and the digital economy by the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth was tabled on 28 November 2019. The Government supports the direction of all the recommendations.

Australian Government response to the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth report: Trade and the Digital Economy

The Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth report on its inquiry into the trade system and the digital economy was tabled in Parliament on 20 September 2018. The report included 11 recommendations, including that the Australian Government investigate ways to assist Australian small and medium-sized enterprises to improve their cyber security awareness and resilience levels.

Trade and the digital economy Report — Tabled 20 September 2018

Last Updated: 29 November 2019

Contact us

Email: digitaltrade@dfat.gov.au


E-Commerce and Digital Trade Enquiries
Regional Trade Agreements Division
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
R.G. Casey Building
John McEwen Crescent
Barton ACT 0221

For media enquiries, please contact DFAT's media team: media@dfat.gov.au, (02) 6261 1555.