Top of Page

Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 18. 5. The IFLA/EBLIDA talks with the World Trade Organization and the European Commission about GATS and libraries, 18 December 2002 report to the Executive Committee of EBLIDA

by Kjell Nilsson

On the 18th of December 2002, a joint delegation from IFLA and EBLIDA visited Geneva to meet separately with representatives of the WTO and of the European Commission's delegation to the WTO.

The visitors were:

  • Frode Bakken, president of the Norwegian Library Association and the then chairman of the EBLIDA working group on WTO-related matters
  • Teresa Hackett, the then Director of EBLIDA
  • Ross Shimmon, Secretary General of IFLA, and
  • Myself, member of the IFLA/CLM working group on WTO-related matters and the current chairman of the EBLIDA working group
The purpose of the trip was to have discussions with WTO and EC officials about the potential impact of GATS on publicly funded libraries. It was more of a fact-finding mission than a lobbying one. We had quite a few questions on our list, and several people contributed to that list.


At the WTO headquarters we met with:

  • Dale Honeck, GATS counsellor for Culture
  • Pierre Latrille, GATS counsellor for Education, and
  • Martin Roy, Economic Affairs Officer of the GATS secretariat
  • The two most fundamental questions we raised with the WTO people were:
  • Are the services of publicly funded libraries included in the scope of GATS, or should they be regarded as "supplied in the exercise of governmental authority" (article 1:3 C) and therefore by definition be excluded from the treaty?
  • Are there any sectors in the treaty, except sub-sector 10 C: "Libraries, archives, and museums" and sector 5: "Educational services" that involve library services? (For instance, where do you place library services provided online?)
We had a very open-minded conversation that stretched far beyond the scheduled two hours, but the answers we received were not very clarifying. The counsellors seemed fairly uncertain about their interpretations of the treaty and they also disagreed between themselves on some of them. Nevertheless, our conclusions were that:

The services of publicly funded libraries are definitely within the scope of the GATS agreement; only services supplied by public monopolies fall outside. Online library services might, if we are unlucky, go into sector 2 B: "Computer and related services", a sector which has in fact already been committed by the European Union.

To be honest, it has to be said that the UN classification scheme (CPC), which forms the basis of the GATS treaty, places "information retrieval from databases" among "Library services" (96311), but my guess is it will not stay there for much longer. The UN scheme is 15 years old, it is already being supplemented by the WTO Services Sectoral Classification List ("W/120"), and clearly online information retrieval services cannot logically be restricted to libraries. Actually, in this field, publicly funded libraries are being consistently challenged by private companies.

European Commission

At the EC delegation we met with Ann Mary Redmond, who is one of the EC officials involved in the GATS negotiations.

Our purpose in meeting with her was primarily to find out more about the relationship between the EC and the member states in these negotiations. What we found out was essentially that:

  • The European Commission collectively makes the requests and offers on behalf of the member states.
  • The discussions around GATS take place in the "Article 133 committee" in which officials from the national trade ministries meet regularly (approximately every two weeks).
  • Should it be impossible to reach consensus, the individual member states can derogate from the line of the EC. However, this will probably not stay that way for long. The so-called Nice Treaty opens up for majority voting on trade issues.

Current status of the GATS negotiations

Following the WTO meeting in Qatar in November 2001 a request/offer process was initiated in the GATS negotiations. Requests should have been made by the end of June 2002, offers by the end of March 2003. Until now, most of the member states have done neither. The EC has done both.

The EC has presented the requests made to and offers made by the European Union, and prior to making its offers it opened the floor to comments. The EBLIDA response, basically urging the EC not to commit sub-sector 10 C, was published on 9 January this year. And, in fact, the EC did not make any requests or offers pertaining to 10 C. However, Austria, before joining the European Union, for some strange reason committed this sector with no restrictions at all.

Because of the unexpectedly slow process it is very unlikely that the upcoming WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, 10-14 September 2003, will entail any decisions on GATS offers. That is not at all to say we should not attentively and continuously observe what is happening in the negotiations.


A lasting impression from our talks in Geneva is that a complex international treaty like GATS gives room for different interpretations. Also, it is a live organism, the wording of which might be subject to many changes during its lifetime.

Although some 20 countries already committed sub-sector 10 C, it is fair to say that library services has not been one of the most targeted areas in the GATS negotiations. Nevertheless, librarians will have to watch out.

There are several issues which need particular attention, e.g.:

  1. "Educational services" (which is certainly one of the most attractive targets, and which, in many countries, includes a substantial part of the publicly funded libraries).
  2. A commitment has already been made by the EC for "privately funded services". Obviously, if the publicly funded ones are to remain untouched, libraries will not be the most important argument. But we can note with satisfaction that large national and international university associations have issued statements against any plans to commit publicly funded universities. And of course we should give our support to such resistance, guided by our overriding goal of open access to information.
  3. There seems to be some uncertainty around the funding issue. For instance, many publicly funded universities offer fee-based courses for private companies.
  4. A WTO book on GATS and education is expected before the end of this year. Online library services.

As I indicated above, I do not think that fighting this battle on the classification field is a very good idea in the long run. Better then to fall back on the existing horizontal limitation to the national treatment principle inscribed in the EC's schedule of specific commitments, stating as regards commercial presence (mode 3) that:

  • "the EC has reserved its right to supply, or subsidize, a service within the public sector without breaching its national treatment commitments."

    The EC has a working group looking at the issues concerning electronic services.

    The ones who should watch out are primarily the national library associations, which should get in touch with their government trade officials and articulate their concerns. On the international level I am confident organizations like EBLIDA and IFLA will continue to support the cause of publicly funded, openly accessible libraries.

    To do that in an adequate way we have to analyze, raise awareness, and advocate. Of course, this is not something that should be done successively, one thing after the other. On the contrary, we have to work in parallel on all of it. At the moment, awareness raising seems to be the most urgent task. On the library side there are simply too few people who are knowledgeable on this subject.

    Partly for that very reason, it is extremely important that we cooperate internationally, in and outside Europe.


    For enquiries contact   isc-journalat

    All articles, reviews or other works are the copyright of the respective author(s) as shown.