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Need to bridge digital divide as tech has played key role during COVID-19 crisis: WTO report

There is a "glaring" need to bridge the digital divide, both within and across countries, as the digital economy has played a key role during the current COVID-19 crisis, according to a report by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The report has argued that the experiences and lessons emerging from the COVID-19 crisis could be a further incentive for global cooperation in the area of e-commerce, which could help to facilitate cross-border movement of goods and services, narrow the digital divide, and level the playing field for small businesses.

It said certain traditional obstacles have been accentuated and have continued to hamper greater participation in e-commerce activities by small producers, sellers and consumers in developing countries, particularly in least-developed countries (LDCs).

"The pandemic has highlighted the glaring need to bridge the digital divide, both within and across countries, given the central role the digital economy has played during the crisis," it said.

It also said that e-commerce for goods and services trade has been adversely impacted by the factors that have caused disruption in supply and demand overall and such disruptions have resulted in delivery delays or outright cancellation of orders.

Several other e-commerce-related challenges have arisen or been further amplified during this pandemic such as increasing prices to unreasonably high levels, product safety concerns, deceptive practices, and cybersecurity concerns, the report said.

It, however, said the enforcement of social distancing, lockdowns and other measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led consumers to ramp up online shopping, social media use, internet telephony and teleconferencing, and streaming of videos and films.

"This has resulted in spikes in business-to-consumers (B2C) sales and an increase in business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce. The increase in B2C sales is particularly evident in online sales of medical supplies, household essentials and food products," it added.

It said that demand has also increased for internet and mobile data services.

It added that the pandemic has made it clear that e-commerce can be an important tool or solution for consumers.

"The global nature of COVID-19 and its impact on e-commerce may encourage strengthened international cooperation and the further development of policies for online purchases and supply...E-commerce can also support small businesses and, by making economies more competitive, be an economic driver for both domestic growth and international trade,"it added.

The WTO work programme defines electronic commerce as the production, distribution, marketing, sale or delivery of goods and services by electronic means.

With a fast growing e-commerce sector both in India and globally, the rich nations want specific guidelines on the sector at the WTO.