21 The Information Technology Agreement (ITA)

Rostam J. Neuwirth[1]

Background

The Information Technology Agreement (ITA) was concluded in December 1996 as a part of the declaration issued by the Singapore Ministerial Conference held one year after the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Adopted as a plurilateral agreement between 29 WTO members, it entered into effect in 1997 with the objective of recognizing the “key role of trade in information technology products in the development of information industries and in the dynamic expansion of the world economy” (ITA Declaration 1996). In substance, it entails the obligation of signatory members to enhance market access opportunities for information technology (IT) products by notably binding and eliminating customs duties and other duties and charges of any kind on this category of products. Since the inception in 1997, the ITA has grown from 29 to 82 of the total of the current 162 WTO members but in effect covers approximately 96 per cent of world trade in information technology products (WTO Committee 2015).

With trade in IT products growing rapidly, soon after the adoption of the ITA, efforts were undertaken to expand the list of covered products by an additional 201 categories of IT products (Portugal-Perez, Reyes and Wilson 2010). The efforts were successful, when in December 2015 the Nairobi Ministerial Conference effectively expanded the list of covered IT products. Newly added IT products included two main categories listed in the Annex (WTO Nairobi Ministerial Declaration 2015). The first category are Attachment A Products, which bear specific Harmonized System (HS) 2007 subheadings, such as microphones, loudspeakers, “smart cards”, television cameras, digital cameras and video camera recorders as well as video games and video game consoles. The second category are Attachment B products, which comprise 10 groups of products regardless of their HS classification but include products like Multi-component integrated circuits (MCOs), touch screens, ink cartridges, and portable interactive electronic education devices primarily designed for children.

The ITA Agreement, Culture and the Creative Economy

Information technologies form one of the cornerstones of the growing global “knowledge-based” or “information economy”. In parallel, a cultural economy developed, which gradually began to converge with the information economy to what is now commonly called a “creative economy” (Venturelli 2001; UNCTAD 2008 and 2010). Similar to the concept of culture, the creative economy was termed an “evolving concept”, which “‘entails a shift from the conventional models towards a multidisciplinary model dealing with the interface between economics, culture and technology and centred on the predominance of services and creative content’” (UNCTAD 2008: iii and 3-4). Thus far the creative economy has also been defined as comprising cultural and creative industries (CCI) (Garnham 2005), which have been constantly evolving as “concentric circles” (Throsby 2008). Virtually in all sectors of the economy a trend of convergence can be observed, which has led to the term “convergenomics” (Lee and Olson 2010). A converging economy is characterised by the production of so-called convergence products, such as “smart phones”, which merge several separated devices, technologies, and industries and also alter the way products are produced, distributed and consumed. In a converging and creative economic environment, which strongly relies on information technology and digital technology, it means that any industry is potentially a creative industry given that almost all industrial sectors are relying on innovation (Galloway and Dunlop 2007: 19). These trends are highly problematic for the traditional legal distinction between cultural and “purely” economic products. The reason is that the creative industries’ dual, i.e. cultural and economic nature, are increasingly blurring formerly well-established lines of legal distinctions (Neuwirth 2015).

The ITA Agreement: A Brief Assessment

Despite the recent progress made in terms of the expansion of covered categories of IT products, the ITA Agreement will continue to face serious challenges in terms of customs classification against the backdrop of rapid technological evolution of the IT sector and a general trend towards greater convergence in the global economy. The convergence of economic products in general, including both goods and services, also has important implications for the “culture and trade debate”, as exemplified by the legal relations between the WTO covered agreements and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (CDCE) and the question of establishing a coherent regulatory framework for international trade in the era of an emerging creative economy (Richieri Hanania 2015). The challenges include notably the classification and distinction of various information technology products as either specific cultural or ordinary economic products and the question of their separate or joint regulation (Guèvremont et al. 2015; Neuwirth 2015; Weber and Burri 2013). A further challenge comes from regionalism, i.e. the increasing negotiation and conclusion of regional trade agreements, which contain important chapters on digital or information technology products (Mann and Liu 2008; Weber 2015).

References

Galloway, Susan and Dunlop, Stewart (2007) “A Critique of Definitions of the Cultural and Creative Industries in Public Policy”. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 13(1), p. 17-31.

Garnham, Nicholas (2005) “From Cultural to Creative Industries”. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 11(1), p. 15-29.

Guèvremont, Véronique et al. (2015) “Le renouvellement de l’exception culturelle à l’ère du numérique” (22 October 2015), http://www.coalitionfrancaise.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/RIJDEC-Le-renouvellement-de-lexception-culturelle-%C3%A0-l%C3%A8re-du-num%C3%A9rique-22-10-15.pdf.

ITA Declaration (1996) “WTO Ministerial Conference, Ministerial Declaration on Trade in Information Technology Products”. WT/MIN(96)/16 (13 December 1996).

Lee, Sang M. and Olson, David L. (2010) Convergenomics: Strategic Innovation in the Convergence Era. Farnham, Gower.

Mann, Catherine and Liu, Xuepeng (2008) “The Information Technology Agreement: sui generis or model stepping stone?”, in Richard Baldwin and Patrick Low (eds.), Multilateralizaing Regionalism. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 182-216.

Neuwirth, Rostam J. (2015) « Global Market Integration and the Creative Economy: The Paradox of Industry Convergence and Regulatory Divergence”. Journal of International Economic Law, 18(1), p. 21-50.

Portugal-Perez, Alberto, Reyes, José-Daniel and Wilson, John S. (2010) “Beyond the Information Technology Agreement: Harmonisation of Standards and Trade in Electronics”. The World Economy, 33(12), p. 1870–1897.

Richieri Hanania, Lilian (2015) “The UNESCO Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions as a Coordination Framework to promote Regulatory Coherence in the Creative Economy”, The International Journal of Cultural Policy, DOI: 10.1080/‌10286632.‌2015.1025068, p. 1-20.

Throsby, David (2008) “The Concentric Circles Model of the Cultural Industries”, Cultural Trends, 17(3), p. 147-164.

UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) (2008) World Creative Economy Report 2008: The challenge of assessing the creative economy towards informed policy-making. Geneva, UNCTAD.

UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) (2010) World Creative Economy Report 2010: Creative Economy: A Feasible Development Option. Geneva, UNCTAD.

Venturelli, Shalini (2001) From the Information Economy to the Creative Economy: Moving Culture to the Center of International Public Policy. Washington, DC, Center for Arts and Culture.

Weber, Rolf H (2015) “Digital Trade and E-Commerce: Challenges and Opportunities of the Asia-Pacific Regionalism”. Asian Journal of WTO & International Health Law and Policy, 10(2), p. 321-347.

Weber, Rolf H. and Burri, Mira (2013) Classification of Services in the Digital Economy. Heidelberg, Springer, 2013.

WTO Committee (2015) “Committee of Participants on the Expansion of Trade in Information Technology Products, Status of Implementation (Note by the Secretariat)”. G/IT/1/Rev.54 (5 October 2015).

WTO Nairobi Ministerial Declaration (2015) “Ministerial Conference, Ministerial Declaration on the Expansion of Trade in Information Technology Products”. WT/MIN(15)/25 (16 December 2015).


  1. Mag. iur. (University of Graz), LL.M. (McGill), Ph.D. (European University Institute); Associate Professor at the University of Macau, Faculty of Law.


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