Europe is well placed to take a leadership role in the formation of global policy on electronic commerce, according to a leading US representative to the G7 economic group, although intransigent French nationalism is causing problems
?The European Commission is being amazingly responsive to the issue of electronic commerce,? said Jim Johnson, head of the US delegation to the G7 Electronic Commerce Policy Group. ?The Commission wants to get electronic commerce policy theoretically perfect before it starts to implement it. To that end it has done some of the best theoretical work in this area.?
Johnson made his comments on the eve of the official unveiling of the US own electronic commerce policy by President Clinton on 1 July (see separate story). This strategy will form the basis for all US negotiations on the formation of a global electronic commerce infrastructure.
The Clinton strategy will emphasise the need for private enterprise to take the lead in shaping the electronic commerce industry and should participate in any discussion relating to regulation of the sector. It will also urge that major strategy and legislative decisions need to be taken on a global rather than national basis.
A draft of the policy statement notes: ?The Internet is a global marketplace. The legal framework supporting commercial transactions on the Internet should be governed by consistent principles that lead to predictable results regardless of the jurisdiction in which a particular buyer or seller resides.?
Johnson felt that encouraging the involvement of the private sector is vital, but that there are a number of cultural barriers that have to be disposed of in order for this to work. ?The technology community does not readily recognise the role of government in their lives, ?he noted. ?The telecoms industry has been regulated to a high degree for a long time, but the IT industry has not been regulated at all. Generally there is in the culture of IT companies a disdain for government.?
As far as international consensus is concerned, Johnson said the growing power of the European Commission in Brussels was highly significant. ?At the summits we have seen the European Community take leadership over the individual nations so for the US we have a new political entity to deal with. It?s become an important aspect of dealing with Europe. If you are a major international company you need someone in Brussels watching what the commission is doing.?
He said that a scheduled meeting of European Union ministers on 6 July in Bonn was a good example of the enthusiasm in Europe for the electronic commerce revolution.The conference - Global Infomation Networks: Realising the Potential? will result in a ministerial declaration on international policy making.
?The statements that will be made there are an amazing step forward,? said Johnson. ?The original reason for the conference was to discuss content regulation of the Internet, but that?s shifted now to being about encouraging the growth of electronic commerce.?
But not everything in Europe is to Johnson?s liking. For example, he is none too impressed by some of the claims made by the Germans .'A few weeks ago we had the chief of Deutsche Telekom boasting that the whole of Germany has access to ISDN, something which the US does not,? he noted. ?But this didn?t answer the question of why Germany has the lowest level of Internet access in Europe.?
The reason for this, claimed Johnson, was Deutsche Telekom?s monopoly on the telecoms market which meant access rates were fixed and not driven down by competitive pressure. ?It?s not just underdeveloped countries that have problems with telephone monopolies,? he said. ?It?s all of Europe as well. Now we have a new government in France that is resisting the 1998 liberalisation of the telecoms market.?
The French attitude toward telecoms deregulation is only a small part of a far greater irritation at the country?s attitude. ?We?ve found that the French G7 representatives have one word that translates pretty well in all languages and that word is generally ?Non!?, explained Johnson. ?We put forward policy and they say ?We?re going to sit this one out. They resist every move we make.?
Johnson poured particular scorn on the French government?s insistence that Web sites must be in French.. ?They should go and evangelise their cause instead of complaining about what they call anglo-saxon domination of the Internet,? he said. ?I just say ?Get with the programme!?.?
But fears of cultural colonialism are not restricted to the French. Johnson cited the example of the president of Malaysia who described the Internet as a tool of Western industrial imperialists out to reconquer their former colonies. The US and other nations need to convince the rest of the world that a global commerce infrastructure would benefit everyone.
Johnson maintained that there has been considerable progress on a global scale about facilitating the growth of electronic commerce. As evidence he cited the World Trade Organisation?s (WTO) success last December in getting commitment from member nations to reduce tariffs on IT to zero by the millennium.
?This is really very important, particularly in the case of countries like India,? he said. ?There they have a huge human resource of IT skilled people, but until recently there was an 80% tariff to take a computer into the country. Since 40% of their total tariffs comes from imports, it is significant that India has signed the WTO agreement.?
?Every country is doing something about electronic commerce. Whether it is the right something is another matter,? he concluded, adding a quote which he sees as particularly appropriate to the work ahead. ?Benjamin Franklin said those who appreciate good laws and good sausages should not see either being made.?
Johnson was the keynote speaker at the Giga Information Group?s Business Online 97 conference in San Francisco.
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