Electronic technological development has collided with the standards and criteria of international commerce established by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) from the signature of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1947. Not even the Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), signed in 1994 as part of the Marrakech Treaties which concluded the Uruguay Round of GATT, took into consideration new trade means. In fact, it was soon determined that multilateral commerce in services would be: a) cross border trade; b) consumer movement; and c) commercial presence. According to this classification, electronic commerce is equivalent to telephonic for the international rendering of services.

At such time, the potentially enormous commercial possibilities of digital processing technology allowing for electronic sale from the downloading of computer programmes; architectural projects; books, music, films, technology; and regulated services such as medical and legal consulting, among others, were not contemplated. Such gap led the developed countries, the great inspirers and promoters of GATS, to a paroxysm of guilt for such unforgivable omission to affirming their hegemonic economic interests.

This evidence led the developed countries, without exception, to furious activity to recover the lost ground by means of proposing alternatives which would, within the multilateral system of the WTO, a) first, avoid the raising of obstacles to the sale of digitally processed products, even if subjected to tariffs, although they were to a large part violating the terms of the GATS; and b) secondly, secure the transitory acceptability of those violations within the legal system. This way, the Second Ministerial Conference of the WTO, which took place in 1997, adopted a declaration on electronic commerce which asserted that the ministers had reached a political consensus to continue the practice of not imposing customs tariffs until the next Ministerial Conference; and assigned to the Director-General the elaboration of a study with the objective of addressing all commercial issues related to global electronic commerce. For the means of this study, electronic commerce was defined as being: “the production, distribution, marketing, sale or delivery of goods and services by electronic means”.

According to a pure and exclusively legal perspective it is possible to assert that there are two elements to consider for a study related to the topic, under the rubric of multilateral trade, namely a) juridical format, with due definitions and classifications; and b) the questions pertinent to market access, with definitions of what would constitute barriers to electronic commerce and how liberalisation would be accomplished. From a juridical perspective, although more restrictive, regarding the national or regional legal system the implications of electronic commerce relative to contracts law would consider taking declaration of intent (electronic signature and certification), the formation of the contracts, as well as the so-called diffused rights, such as privacy and consumer rights, into account.

Thus, as soon as the declaration on electronic commerce had been adopted, countries and international organisations began preparing studies and/or projects which could influence the work developed within the ambit of the WTO, taking into account that for the Third Ministerial Conference programmed for Seattle, United States of America (USA), the publication of the Millennium Round[1]
was expected, having the issue at the top of its agenda, raised by the European Union (EU), the USA and Japan, uncoincidentally. Therefore, questions were raised within the Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD) as to how international trade would function in a cartel of hegemonic interests so as to develop a plan of action[2]
with the objective of influencing the governments of the member countries of the WTO for the predicted round of negotiations.

Likewise, but with totally different objectives, the United Nations Commission for International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) prepared a model law[3]
on electronic commerce dealing exclusively with the legal questions of certification and the validity of electronic signatures, as well as with the formation of contracts, in an effort disassociated with the interests to be discussed within the ambit of the Millennium Round of the WTO. The project also contemplated the regulation of electronic documents pertinent to the physical transport of goods.

Concommitently, the developing countries reacted, for whom the promises of prosperity made during the Uruguay Round resulted as specious chimeras which made the differences between them and the developed countries the more pronounced, in such a way that characterised the greatest profit concentration in the years following the Marrakech Treaties. Thus, the Group of 15, in the preparatorial ministerial meeting for the Seattle Ministerial Conference, alerted to the problems deriving from ethnocentric analysis of the issue as to electronic commerce, insisted that the same be viewed from the perspective of the developing countries. [4]
This meeting had been preceded by another, in Geneva, [5]
in which Non-Governmental Organisations of great representation had revealed that, according to the developed countries and the secretariat of the WTO, the benefits of the insertion of electronic commerce in the multilateral system would revert “almost exclusively” to the developed countries´ companies and that the developing countries would lose the option by reason of the source of tax revenue.

From the unsatisfactory Seattle Ministerial Meeting it was unequivocally verified in the broad perception of international public opinion that multilateral trade maintains a game of marked cards benefiting a few hegemonic interests in detriment to the majority of the world population, left to absolute misery by the culpability, greed and institutional insensitivity of an illegal modern piracy attacking under the undeserved epithet of free global commerce. Further, sadly for international law, disseminated from Seattle has been the impression that the secretariat of the WTO has no transparency, governance or independence sufficient for the organisation to function as an instrument affirming the law and its supremacy over the multilateral commerce system.

Regarding the question of the regulation of electronic commerce a certain dichotomy must exist between purely legal issues of domestic law, national or regional, tending to regulate a commerce modality that is already an important reality, [6]
and the attempt for institutional enrichment, which is an effort currently conducted within ambit of the WTO under the false argument for liberalisation of international trade. Regarding domestic regulation, regional or national, the effort effectuated by UNCITRAL is important. In the same way, an amplification of the protection of the consumer relative to electronic commerce products and services has to be applied, as well as preservation of the right to privacy.

On the other hand, with regard to the rubric of multilateral trade law, the question remains one of great complexity. Issues of profound relevancy should be carefully examined and their repercussions fully appraised and discussed by society. For example, how is the issue of regulated professions and their practise addressed? Should a patient be able to make a virtual consultation with a doctor qualified in another country? Moreover, how should one deal with the issue of financial services given the flight of capital to the OECD countries without fiscal cooperation regulation in place aiming to combat fraud and organised crime? Or how does one protect the fledgling industries of the developing countries? And the question of cultural “dumping”? The list of issues is practically endless, of enormous complexity and relevance as to the future of the people and the prosperity of nations.

As these issues have not comprehensively been debated in international and independent forums with due credibility, and with equitable results, the regulation of electronic commerce should only embrace national or regional law.