Business in the time of Covid-19
July 16 2020 12:42 AM
Susan L Karamanian
Susan L Karamanian

By Susan L Karamanian/ Doha

The traditional understanding of “Open for Business”, with a sign in a storefront window, visible from the street or the avenue of a mall, still exists in our minds yet it is slowly fading. Instead, we are growing accustomed to online platforms, where consumers and merchants need only click or swipe to conduct business on a 24/7 basis.   
Well before the pandemic, e-commerce was growing and absorbing market share around the world, including in Qatar, where transactions already exceed billions of US dollars. This development is by no means an accident. In addition to the requisite technological infrastructure, such as high-speed Internet and user-friendly platforms, the success of e-commerce depends on the confidence of merchants, other businesses, and consumers in a virtual system. That confidence, in turn, depends on a legal regime to enable contract formation via the Internet that is reliable and secure.   
In 2010, Qatar enacted the Electronic Commerce and Transactions Law, which enables and regulates e-commerce in many daily commercial transactions. The Law allows parties to create contracts electronically, or as the Law provides, by way of data messages. Data messages are evidence of the “writing” requirement. The Law also recognises e-signatures, subject to various requirements. To protect consumers, it imposes obligations on those providing an electronic commerce service.  
In 2012, the former Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR) issued e-commerce bylaws. The bylaws establish standards for regulating certification service providers, namely those “licensed to maintain public key infrastructure, to issue certification certificates and to provide related electronic signature services”.   
Along with legal developments, the Government of Qatar has actively engaged to promote e-commerce by way of providing relevant information to consumers and merchants. Qatar’s e-Commerce information portal, hosted by the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) is one such example, as is the MoTC’s Comprehensive Guidelines for E-Commerce.
With this foundation in place, the question becomes, “what next?” The lockdown has demonstrated the need to think broadly about using the Internet to create and sustain business relationships and transactions. As we conduct our daily work online, whether teaching or participating in meetings, a new meaning of “in-person” has emerged. Can we now understand the phrase “in-person” to mean interactions via Zoom, WebEx, or Microsoft Teams, as opposed to having people physically present together in a room?  
If the answer is “yes,” why not enable judicial trials and hearings virtually? In fact, in April 2020, due to co-operation between the Supreme Judicial Council of Qatar and the Ministry of the Interior, the Court of First Instance used video and other advanced technology to hold a hearing. Also in April, the Qatar International Court and Dispute Resolution Centre (QICDRC) held a virtual hearing with staff, judges and lawyers in four separate countries. These examples establish the possibility of a new world of dispute resolution; for business, it could mean reduced costs and other efficiencies.  
Second, as government entities around the world have had to limit their engagement with citizens and others due to the virus, can we take the technology used in virtual hearings and apply it to daily activities, such as notarisation of documents that are required to have this form of authentication?  
The legal foundation exists for e-commerce, and it has been in use for nearly a decade in Qatar, resulting in the growth of new businesses and increased options for consumers. Taking the lessons learned and applying them in a broader context will lead to further efficiencies and welfare enhancement.  
The College of Law held a virtual forum exploring some of these issues in the contexts of courts on Sunday, July 12 at 4pm, featuring the President of the QICDRC, Lord Thomas, and the Chief Judge of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Hon. Barbara Lynn.  

* Dr Susan L Karamanian is the Dean of the College of Law, Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

(This article is submitted on behalf of the author by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the University’s official stance).

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