After tariff moratorium extended, is more permanent policy needed to keep digital trade open?


No entry symbol ghosted over hands typing on a keyboard representing digital trade

Digital trade has emerged as a critical component driving economic growth and innovation. In 2022, the value of global exports of digitally delivered services reached US$ 3.82 trillion, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Every two years, the World Trade Organization (WTO) convenes a ministerial meeting, and its 13th installment – Thirteenth WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13) commenced on the 26th of February in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

With its dispute-resolution mechanism in disarray, the WTO faced an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to facilitate negotiated agreements. At stake, among various other issues, lay the future of a moratorium on tariffs on digital trade.

This moratorium essentially prohibits member states from imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions such as software, e-books, music, and other digital products.

Since its inception in 1998, the WTO e-commerce moratorium has been renewed every two years, serving as a cornerstone of the digital economy. It has facilitated the growth of cross-border digital trade, enabling businesses to reach global markets with greater ease and efficiency.

However, although the moratorium was renewed yet again in 2024, there is an expectation of a fiercer negotiation when the time for renewal comes in 2026. At least 3 major developing countries expressed their dissatisfaction with the moratorium.

Let’s delve into the challenges.

Challenges to renewal

With the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) having just taken place, the future of the e-commerce moratorium had become a timely and contentious topic of discussion. MC13 held the potential to shape the trajectory of international trade policies and the digital transformation of trade for years to come, making the fate of the moratorium a pressing concern for WTO members worldwide.

Despite its longstanding presence, the renewal of the e-commerce moratorium faced challenges from certain quarters. Two developing countries, in particular, express concerns about the perceived imbalance in the current digital trade landscape. In most cases, when member states are signaling to oppose the moratorium it’s usually a bluff in order to get concessions in other areas. But things looked rather dire this time around.

Let’s look at which countries opposed the moratorium and why:


According to Bloomberg, during the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in 2022 in Geneva, India had adopted the same stance as now and propagated for an end to the digital trade tariffs moratorium along with several other South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan etc. However, after a discussion between USTR and Indian Trade Minister Piyush Goyal, India took a swift u-turn and agreed to an extension of the moratorium.

The 2024 moratorium followed the same trajectory. Piyush Goyal made a strong case against the e-commerce moratorium, alleging that it refrains from imposing customs duties, favored big tech companies and undermined the prospects of competitors in developing countries.

However, on the final day of MC-13, India took yet another U-Turn. Goyal said he agreed to the renewal of the moratorium upon the request of the UAE trade minister, Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeoudi, who is also the chair of the ministerial conference. “He is a friend, and out of friendship, I agreed,” Goyal told reporters.


The evolution of the digital economy has brought forth new challenges and complexities that were not envisaged when the moratorium was first introduced. Issues such as data privacy, cybersecurity, and intellectual property rights now occupy center stage, prompting calls for a comprehensive reevaluation of existing trade rules. Indonesia argued that renewing the moratorium without addressing these concerns would be premature and may exacerbate existing regulatory gaps.

“Indonesia also believes that governments need to be free to impose tariffs in response to rapid change in the digital world,” said Askolani, director general of customs and excise at the country’s Ministry of Finance.

According to the WTO, the potential tariff loss to developing countries is around $10 billion, further emphasizing the significant economic implications at stake in the debate surrounding the e-commerce moratorium.

Indonesia was one of India’s staunchest allies in opposition against WTO negotiations. However, they were completely unaware of India’s decision to drop the opposition to the e-commerce moratorium. It continued to oppose the moratorium till the final hours of the meeting, before eventually relenting under pressure as well.

Potential implications of WTO’s tariff moratorium expiration

Over the years the moratorium has its fair share of advocates and critics both. While some believe that it’s essential to have the moratorium in place, others think that it disproportionately benefits tech giants from advanced economies, exacerbating existing inequalities. However, allowing the e-commerce moratorium to expire could have profound implications for the digital trade landscape.

One immediate consequence would be the imposition of tariffs on digital trade transactions, including the downloading of digital content on streaming services and other cross-border digital services. Such tariffs could lead to increased costs for consumers, stifling demand and hindering the growth of the digital economy.

The expiration of the moratorium could trigger a wave of regulatory fragmentation as countries rush to implement their own rules and tariffs on digital trade.

This fragmentation could create barriers to entry for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), limiting their ability to compete globally. It could also escalate trade tensions between major trading partners, further complicating efforts to reach consensus on international trade agreements.

It could also create a climate where startups and small businesses struggle to navigate a patchwork of regulations and tariffs, diverting resources away from innovation and growth. Higher costs associated with tariffs on digital trade transactions may deter investment in new technologies and limit the ability of entrepreneurs to compete globally. This could particularly affect industries such as fintech, artificial intelligence, and digital healthcare, where cross-border collaboration and market access are crucial for advancement.

Alternative options for revenue through existing domestic consumption taxes

Exploring other options for revenue through existing domestic consumption taxes could provide a viable alternative to imposing tariffs on digital trade transactions. Governments could consider leveraging value-added taxes (VAT) or sales taxes on digital goods and services consumed domestically, thereby generating revenue while avoiding potential disruptions to cross-border trade.

By adapting existing tax frameworks to encompass digital transactions, authorities can ensure a level playing field for both domestic and international businesses operating in the digital space.

This approach not only offers a means to capture revenue from the growing digital economy but also aligns with efforts to modernize tax systems in response to changing consumption patterns. Moreover, focusing on domestic consumption taxes allows governments to address revenue needs without impeding the free flow of digital trade across borders, thereby supporting continued innovation and economic growth in the digital era.

The future of digital trade in a post-moratorium era

The renewal of the WTO e-commerce moratorium presents a critical juncture for the future of digital trade. With MC13 having just taken place, WTO members must navigate competing interests and forge a path forward that promotes inclusivity, innovation, and sustainable growth in the digital economy.

A proposal to make the moratorium permanent was also put forth in MC13 but was met with severe opposition and it is expected that things will be rockier in 2026 when MC14 is expected to be held in Cameroon. The decisions made in the next two years will not only shape the future of e-commerce but will also have far-reaching implications for global trade and economic development.

It is essential to strike a balance between fostering digital trade openness and addressing regulatory concerns to ensure that all nations can benefit from the opportunities presented by the digital economy. Efforts to promote transparency, interoperability, and fair competition will be essential in creating an environment conducive to sustainable digital trade growth.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Zarmina Khan

Zarmina is a freelance writer with a passion for exploring a wide range of topics across various niches. With a keen interest in current affairs and a knack for diving into complex issues, she brings a unique perspective to every piece of writing.

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