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 17. Free trade with library services? - No "all clear" regarding GATS

Anders Ericson interviews Frode Bakken, President of the Norwegian Library Association

Originally printed in Norwegian in the journal Bok og bibliotek No. 1, 2003.

The international GATS agreement is about the trading of various services, such as library services, and this has long been a headache for President Frode Bakken of the Norwegian Library Association. After a recent meeting with the WTO in Geneva he is only slightly comforted.

Most people having kept up with the developments of GATS - General Agreement on Trade in Services - react with disbelief; how can anybody ever make money out of library services? But nevertheless several countries, including USA and Japan, have put forward requests to export library services in the future. Countries may guard against being exposed to competition in certain services. However, one cannot count on exemptions forever, not even for what are regarded as traditional public services. And no one should be in any doubt: the clear long term goal for GATS is international liberalisation and free trade for as many services as possible. Mr. Frode Bakken was one of the representatives of the European library association, EBLIDA, at the important meeting in Geneva in December, 2002. He is the co-ordinator of the EBLIDA WTO working group. At this meeting the library community (EBLIDA and IFLA) had their first close encounter with the main force behind the GATS agreement, the WTO - The World Trade Organisation. The library representatives sent, in advance, a document with several concrete questions. One of the problems with the WTO and GATS has been a lack of information, and the information that has been given has been vague and incoherent. But this time EBLIDA wanted some clear answers.

AE: What are your impressions after the meeting? Are library services likely to become part of the agreement and thus opening up an international market for such services?

FB: In my opinion this is still possible. But it is not very likely in the present situation. Mainly, because you do not make much money from running libraries. Of course you'll make more money on health and education, partly because services that used to be public are here exposed to private investments and later to full privatisation. But at the same time there is no reason for librarians to put this issue aside. It is thought-provoking that when WTO was established in 1995, thirteen countries had made commitments in their schedules. Today the number has reached eighteen. However it is important to remember that the agreement itself only tells what is possible, while every single country commits itself and decides whether to open fully or partly its markets for foreign investors and give them the same conditions as domestic investors and companies.

AE: At the Geneva meeting EBLIDA put forward a question about the definition of public services in the GATS agreement. In the GATS it refers to "services - supplied neither on a commercial basis, nor in competition with one or more service suppliers". Will the fate of library services depend on national interpretations?

FB: It is obvious after the thorough conversations with the WTO representatives that there is no such authoritative definition or interpretation. And a lot of the problems about the WTO are how to make the countries agree on common interpretations of various questions in the agreements, not yet agreed upon. For the same reason library supporters cannot claim that these expressions in the GATS agreement give any protection whatsoever in various situations.

AE: Thus Norwegian libraries and the libraries of even more liberalised countries might get different conditions when library services are put into the free market?

FB: Yes, the present government with its own opinion on WTO issues may have one policy, and another government, for example, after an election, may take a different opinion and allow an opening up of market powers to a greater extent.

AE: Some parts of what are usually considered to be public library services may in the future be included in another part of the GATS agreement; i.e. On-line Database and Retrieval under Communication Services . The library delegation asked whether e.g. "Ask-A-Librarian services" will be exposed to international competition in accordance with this definition.

FB: We were given no confirmation to this.

AE: The library environment put forward a GATS scenario where a company gets access to "the library market" and demands the same conditions as public suppliers, such as municipal subsidies. The local government then has to choose between promising the same subsidies, or to lower the level of subsidies to avoid an expansion of total subsidies, or to solve this problem by removing all subsidies. Is this still a possible scenario?

FB: According to GATS regulations and under certain conditions this may happen. In my opinion this was confirmed during the Geneva meeting. But it is still not very likely today. AE: In your opinion one cannot make much money from library activities, but private companies do invest considerable amounts in, for example, digital reference services. There is in fact a gradual privatisation, and it is surely possible that library services could be exposed to free trade?

FB: This is no doubt a possibility, but I find it very difficult to say anything sensible about scenarios here. We need stronger efforts from more parties, especially in international library circles, e.g. IFLA or EBLIDA. In my opinion we need an expert study on the global library market and on relevant scenarios to establish a platform for a new policy. Finally we must remember that a lot of changes in the wake of WTO are related to situations of give and take. Agriculture, for example, is a very important issue in the WTO negotiations in general. Frode Bakken concluded by saying that big changes may occur due to compromise, when one country leaves its principles in one field to prosper in another field.


For enquiries contact   isc-journalat

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