Excerpted from PARMINDER JEET SINGH:
“Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has proposed a new business-led initiative for framing global e-commerce rules. Announcing it at the Boao Forum for Asia, he said: “Let businesses drive it with governments and NGOs and other organisations participating”. Mr. Ma’s proposed setting up what he calls the World e-Trade Platform (WeTP). The
WeTP is supposed to complement the World Trade Organisation which can remain in charge of global rules for offline trade. Alibaba will present this plan in the G-20 meet later this year in Hangzhou, China, where it is headquartered. In short, this means that those who run e-commerce businesses are proposing to draft the rules for e-commerce too, because in their view, they know best.
Mr. Ma’s announcement is apparently a political shocker — corporate power is making a direct political challenge to governmental actors. However, a former vice minister of China, the Indonesian Trade Minister, and the President of the Inter-American Development Bank — all of whom were present at the Boao Forum — reacted positively to the announcement.
To the extent that certain policy/lawmaking simply cannot be done without involving some social actors other that just the mega businesses, there is a new kind of business-led process of policy/lawmaking called multi-stakeholderism. It co-opts select government and civil society actors who can bless the business-dictated frameworks, with a few concessions thrown here and there to the co-opted parties. This is what Mr. Ma’s proposal is; it represents an increasingly favoured approach in Internet/digital governance.
This business-led approach has till now been mostly spoken of in somewhat vague terms, especially when involving issues of clear public policy, though the basic intent has been strongly evident. Mr. Ma just made the first outright proposal in this regard. Alibaba says that it is already working with many groups on this proposal. All of this good in a way to the extent that the real meaning and implication of business-led multi-stakeholderism is now out in the open and various actors should be able to better assess their stand on it.
The problem is equally on the side of governments and public interest actors who have been, as if in a state of complete paralysis, bewildered at the pace and intensity of digital changes. Governments seek piecemeal benefits from these digital changes, without realising how the very political ground may be shifting from under their feet. It is, for instance, surprising that even a country as statist as China could let Alibaba make such an extreme neoliberal move. As things in China often are, the proposal may even have the government’s support, even if tacit. No one apparently wishes to see beyond their noses, blinded by the lure of short-term possible economic gains.
Most public interest organisations too have not moved beyond celebrating the digital opportunity to also appreciating the dangers at the larger systemic level. Meanwhile, the spectre of corporate takeover of society, or corporatocracy, is creeping closer than ever, through the unsuspected digital route which was supposed to be liberating. Alibaba’s website proclaims: “Ma’s ultimate goal is the creation of a virtual, borderless economy not constrained by politics”. But of course this economy will be closely guided (read: controlled) by global corporations like Alibaba.
What is urgently required is to construct political institutions that are adequate to the new digital realities. This work has to be done at both the national and global levels.”