The IFLA Position on WTO Treaty Negotiations (2001)

by Paul Whitney, CLM representative



The future of libraries of all kinds could be jeopardized by a series of international trade treaties that are currently being negotiated. The next important meeting discussing these trade agreements is the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle beginning November 30, 1999. IFLA will be represented in Seattle, along with other library associations, in order to defend the interests of libraries and promote the value of the public sector. As an active international alliance of library associations, libraries and concerned individuals, IFLA is strategically positioned to advocate at the WTO on behalf of libraries.

Libraries are unique social organizations dedicated to providing the broadest range of information and ideas to the public, regardless of age, religion, social status, race, gender or language. The long library traditions of intellectual freedom and equitable access to information and cultural expression form the basis for assuring that library goals are achieved.

Libraries of all types form an interrelated network which serves the citizenry, from the great national, state and research institutions to public and school libraries. The well being of libraries is essential in ensuring access to the full range of human expression and providing individuals with the skills necessary to access and use this content.


The WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle begins the Millennium Round of negotiations. The Ministerial Conference will set the agenda for negotiations which are expected to last three years. The previous Uruguay Round ended in 1994 after seven years of negotiations. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) implemented at that time exempted services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority but ambiguously excluded from the definition of governmental authority any service supplied on a commercial basis, not in competition with one or more service suppliers. As part of the current Millennium Round, there are proposals to expand the GATS from a bottom-up agreement which requires all services covered to be listed in the Agreement to a top-down agreement where all services are included unless specifically exempted. Libraries are not included in the current GATS Agreement and will most certainly be included in the new Agreement unless specifically exempted. Libraries, museums, and archives, as well as health services and education, are potentially affected by the World Trade Organization Millennium Round, specifically relating to the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

The following areas are of concern:

  1. Proposed changes to GATS will open up all aspects of the economy to foreign competition, including libraries.
  2. Privatization of libraries may result from the proposals for expansion of the GATS Agreement.
  3. Possible guarantee of the right of foreign, for-profit library services and suppliers to set-up in any member state and compete against publicly-funded libraries. The country would then have to offer them national treatment, i.e. foreign corporations would have to be treated as well or better than any national supplier. Since the Agreement will cover subsidies, these corporations might be able to argue they should receive equal funding from the government.
  4. Sub-Central governments, state/provincial, municipal, regional governments and their various management boards would be included in any agreements agreed to by the member state. (Part I, Scope and Definition, Article 1, Clause 3a of the existing agreement).
  5. The Market Access (Part II, Specific Commitments, Article XVI) has two clauses that ban (e) measures which restrict or require specific types of legal entity or joint venture through which a service supplier may supply a service; and (f) limitations on the participation of foreign capital in terms of the maximum percentage limit on foreign shareholding or the total value of individual or aggregate foreign investment. These two clauses could prevent local communities from keeping their library services in the public or non-profit sector.
  6. Professional standards could come under challenge as a trade barrier. Article VI of the GATS deals with how domestic regulation could have to be changed to accommodate the overarching goal of trade liberalization in services. The Council for Trade in Service is empowered to set up review panels to assess whether qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards and licensing requirements constitute unnecessary barriers to trade in services.

IFLA Policy Objectives

  1. To strengthen opposition to those WTO policies which will adversely affect the public sector internationally including, but not limited to, libraries, archives, museums and education. The WTO meetings in Seattle afford an opportunity to build links with other organizations at both the national and international level who support libraries and a strong public sector.
  2. To force a delay of the Millennium Round until there has been a sufficient evaluation of the myriad implications of the Uruguay Round.
  3. To promote the importance of libraries as the central public institutions for the collection and distribution of the historical, cultural and intellectual record of civilization in the service of the public and their educational institutions. Libraries enrich and inspire through providing access to the broadest possible range of information and ideas while encouraging democratic discussion and social participation.
  4. To promote the coordinated development of library and library association policy on trade issues and education and lobbying efforts.
  5. To make links with other organizations, particularly, but not restricted to, the cultural sector in recognition of our common interests in the promotion of libraries and cultural institutions as central to the enrichment and democratic foundations of society.

IFLA Policy Position

While discussing the process in terms of allowing "competition" appears benign, the eventual outcome of permitting the private sector to compete with libraries and educational institutions will be to undermine their tax-supported status.

The liberalized trade treaties force equal, or national, treatment, which requires that all "competitors" be treated equally. Tax subsidies for services for which there is private sector competition are likely to be found to be in violation of this requirement. Without tax support, the library's role as a democratic institution, making available the widest range of material reflecting the diversity of society, will be compromised.

IFLA's fundamental position is opposition to the WTO/GATS as presently outlined in the WTO documents.

  1. IFLA supports and joins with other public sector organizations such as museums, archives and public education institutions in declaring the importance of our services to the health, richness and level of equity so far established in our society. The WTO is one dimension of a multitude of efforts to enrich corporations by forcing public services into the private sector through privatization, budget reductions or international trade agreements. This trend should be resisted.
  2. Publicly funded libraries are part of the cultural sector. They are involved in encouraging the development and promotion of cultural products, particularly literature, and the preservation and dissemination of those products. Libraries should be part of protections proposed for culture and should support and be part of any possible separate treaty which allows special consideration for cultural goods and services in international trade.

    IFLA should work with national and international cultural groups to create alliances for achieving recognition and protection for the development of regional and domestic cultural products. The objective of such an alliance is the creation of cultural diversity and the encouragement of multiple voices rather than homogenized and globalized cultural products which dominate by virtue of financial or corporate strength.

    While supporting the right of WTO member states to promote and nurture national culture, IFLA opposes any obstacles to the free flow across international borders of legally produced information and cultural content normally collected or distributed by libraries. IFLA opposes tariffs or other duties or taxes on the importation of print on paper or digital content. Such measures have the potential to stifle intellectual freedom.

  3. IFLA is opposed to the expansion of the GATS agreement but should it go forward, it will concentrate on a separate agreement/exemption for libraries and cultural organizations while continuing to push for protection of the broadly defined public sector.

Note: Mr Paul Whitney (Chief Librarian of Burnaby Public Library, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) is IFLA's accredited representative at the WTO Ministerial conference in Seattle. The American and Canadian Library Associations also have accredited representatives.

CLM (Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters), World Trade Organization (WTO)

Last update: 7 July 2017