New e-commerce regulations due to come into force in the UK tomorrow (21 August) are lacking clarity and may hamper government attempts to make the UK the best place to do e-business, according to industry groups.
The regulations, based on the European Union's e-commerce directive, are designed to clarify what information an online service provider must supply to consumers, and to detail liability for any unlawful information they unwittingly carry or store.
But members of the Alliance for Electronic Business (AEB), a group of industry bodies including the Confederation of British Industry, Intellect, the Direct Marketing Association, e.centre and the Federation of the Electronics Industry, have warned that uncertainty surrounding some key legal aspects could actually damage the take up of e-commerce in the UK.
Beatrice Rogers, e-business programme manager at Intellect, told vnunet.com that the absence of clear guidelines is likely to cause confusion, particularly among smaller suppliers.
"The legislation has been written from a legalistic rather than a practical business perspective and is very hard to interpret," she explained.
"It will be a foundation for how e-commerce is done in this country, and for small businesses in particular we are very concerned that it will put companies off. Anything that creates confusion will be an inhibitor."
Whereas other member states have clarified that the courts in the supplier's home state have jurisdiction, the 'country of origin' issue has remained ambiguous under the UK interpretation of the directive.
There is also confusion over what services the regulation covers and what information suppliers need to provide to customers on their websites.
Will Roebuck, law and policy executive at e.centre, said that the AEB will lobby MPs to overrule the regulations, but admitted that he was not hopeful of a positive outcome.
The AEB will also submit a statement to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) this week outlining its concerns.
"We need certainty, because to develop e-commerce needs the trust of business but also consumers," said Roebuck.
"We are concerned that there is inconsistency with our European neighbours, and a lack of clarity will not help to build trust and encourage them to trade across borders.
"If the regulations are so convoluted, businesses will ignore them and that's not good practice for developing e-commerce.
"This isn't a problem that is going to go away. If we don't sort this out, the UK won't be the best place to do e-business."
But the DTI defended the legislation. A spokesman said: "The e-commerce regulations encourage greater use of e-commerce by breaking down barriers across Europe and boosting consumer confidence.
"Over the past 18 months we have carried out two extensive consultations on the approach to and implementation of the new e-commerce regulations. We received many detailed responses that helped us address concerns and shape the current regulations.
"We have also produced guidance particularly aimed at small and online businesses. The guidance was available from us as soon as the regulations were laid in Parliament and also available via our updated website."
The directive can be read here.
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