Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum by the World Internet Forum

  1.  What needs to be done to create confidence and to stimulate e-commerce?

Supplemental to Derek Wyatt's submission, we believe the Government has achieved significant progress in this regard. It has built a strong operation in the E-Envoy's office. It has identified the three main areas are placed sufficient emphasis on these three areas for them now to be widely recognised and supported by industry. These three areas are detailed in the [email protected] report:

    1.  public understanding;

    2.  public access; and

    3.  trust.

  In the area of public understanding, I would score the Government five out of 10 for having achieved the goals of getting industry, individuals and Government to appreciate in a timely way, the opportunities available and the action to be taken. A great deal of ground needs to be made up in getting institutions to appreciate the need for sheer speed in decision-making required. The Government is operating significantly faster than ever before, and in some cases, it is already operating faster than some people are comfortable with. However, our benchmark for progress must not be to compare ourselves with how we used to be but with how other nations are. This point is simply not made strongly enough. Every nation in the world is racing towards the goal of becoming a great place for e-business—our goal is to become the best place for this in the world, and therefore our progress must be measured against that of other countries. The Government in its DTI International Benchmarking Studies compares us to Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and US. The progress of these countries is, to all intents and purposes, equal with each other, with perhaps Canada as a whole responding more quickly. They are all showing strong growth in the use of e-commerce. We believe that more appropriate comparisons, and benchmarks, should be drawn with countries such as Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Finland, and Sweden. Our close neighbour Ireland is taking innovative steps against which we could benchmark ourselves. These are mostly much smaller countries where the population in general has acquired a culture that is positively disposed to competition with other nations, change in general, innovation, technology and new ways of working.

  In the area of access, we would now score the Government eight out of 10. This is up from five out of 10 a month ago, showing tremendous progress. The progress has been achieved by Gordon Brown's clear expression of views on the telephone access costs of using the Internet, and the resulting price war which that triggered. This event was highly significant for the UK, not simply because it lowered one of the barriers to access at a stroke, but also because of the huge public interest that was created for most of last week in the media on the subject.

  In the area of trust, I would score the Government eight out of 10. By way of example, the Prime Minister called last week for "universal access to the Internet" by 2005. This is significant—however, it could have been called for some six months earlier, as industry was advocating.

  In addition to these points, we have seen dramatic shifts in recent months in the development of the enterprise culture—a very important aspect to helping UK citizens to get online. We would score the Government eight out of 10 in this area.

  We have seen good progress on social exclusion. We would score the Government five out of 10 here. The Government has appropriately and consistently raised this as an issue. But it needs to be turned into more action quickly.

  We have seen good progress too on creating public awareness. We would score the Government eight out of 10 in this area. It cannot have escaped the notice of the Committee that the Internet is a consistently dominant news item in all media. This is achieving a significant "buzz" and excitement among the population and is a welcome recent development.

  We believe that the vision for e-commerce as expressed by the Prime Minister's office, the E-Envoy, the e-Minister, and Ian McCartney is strong and clear. It's worth noting that Tony Blair's views on the knowledge economy expressed at Davos earlier this year were widely regarded as the most clear and progressive of all nations. Their ability to move sufficiently fast is under question, and I think they would be the first to acknowledge this.

  Simply put, the Government requires help in speeding up its decision-making processes.

  There is one final aspect of getting the UK online which we have overlooked, and that is creating a national culture which is positive towards change. Many people in the UK ask what is in it for them to be on the Internet? Many people are fearful of using the Internet.

  The most powerful tool that the Government has to change culture in this area is itself. It must act more and more as role models in the use of the Internet. We must see all MPs on e-mail, all MPs responding to their constituents on e-mail, all MPs responding to their e-mail daily.

  The clerks to this Committee must be congratulated on their approach—it has been exemplary. All preparations for this meeting today have been undertaken using e-mail and the Internet. Responses have been fast. The attitude has been exemplary.

  A telling question for us would be perhaps to what extent members of this Committee use the Internet, how quickly they respond to e-mails, how comfortable they are using the technology. A fitting indicator for how well the UK was doing in shifting its cultural attitudes would be how the members of this Committee use e-mail.

2.  Does the European Commission's draft Action Plan "e-Europe: An Information Society for All" offer a realistic means of promoting e-commerce in the EU?

  In our opinion, the eEurope Action Plan is an unambitious and uninspiring initiative. It is behind the times.

  The EU has lost valuable time. The Bangemann Report which launched the "Information Society" concept in the early 1990s was a milestone and ahead of its time. Too little was done to maintain focus on this area.

  The EU Report highlights the right areas: youth and education, low-cost access, smart cards, risk capital for SMEs, literacy, the role of the Government online. It is a report which is unsurprising in all these areas.

  The EU report's use of targets is interesting. Here is our assessment of the strength of the 10 areas in which they chose to propose them:

    —  European youth and education—the targets here are unambitious;

    —  cheaper internet access—the targets here are non-committal and vague;

    —  accelerating e-commerce—the targets here are inadequate;

    —  fast internet—this is not though through yet, but could be one of the most interesting areas—particularly the goal of all European students to be able to access online lectures;

    —  smart cards—the targets here are unambitious;

    —  risk capital for SMEs—the targets here are unambitious;

    —  participation for the disabled—the targets here are unambitious;

    —  healthcare online—the targets here are positive;

    —  intelligent transport—the targets here are unambitious; and

    —  Government online—the targets here are inadequately defined, vague and lacking any ambition.

  The overarching format and presentation of the EU report borders on being old-fashioned. It could well have been in circulation three years ago—were it not for the cover date of March 2000, I would have indeed thought it was a report coming from the Bangemann Initiative some years ago.

  It cites the overarching goal of "bringing every citizen, home and school, every business and administration into the digital age and online". This, and the other key objectives should have been a top level mantra of the EU back in 1993, not seven years later.

  In comparison, the UK Report, [email protected],uk, is very much ahead of the times. It is significantly more detailed, more comprehensive and clearer in its goals and aspirations.

3.  Will codes of conduct and co-regulation provide sufficient protection? Is there a case for intervention by national governments and the EU?

  Governments and EU have been encouraged to legislate with a "light touch" in this area. We support intervention on this basis. Governments must wait for markets to bring in their own protection—that offered today from most companies selling services and goods over the Internet is good.

4.  Do the institutions of national governments, on the one hand, and the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, on the other, function with sufficient flexibility and coherence to promote the EU's objectives in the field of e-commerce?

  The answer here is a resounding "no". Neither flexibility or coherence are hallmarks of national Governments, and certainly not of the EU. Only this week, we have been celebrating the EU's efforts at defining English chocolate, a process that has been running for at least 10 years.

  As we have said earlier, Government's leadership in the area is critical to addressing the Number 1 barrier—a nation's culture. Governments must show innovation, take risks, lead by example. These are all areas where the natural sense of order, openness to public scrutiny and prudence which Governments display, comes into conflict. We cannot underestimate the scale of re-engineering required by national governments and the EU to change the way they work.

  The regulation of content for pornography and libel is extremely difficult. Electronic means of identifying breaches in the law on the Internet are seen as intrusive and invasive of privacy. Manual means of policing the Internet are extremely costly.

5.  Should existing EU institutions' internal structures be changed, or new ones created, to improve policy development and co-ordination?

  As we have said—the behaviour of Governments and bodies such as the EU is the critical tool in driving national attitudes to technology and e-commerce. All structures must be open, transparent, fast moving, and easily available to all citizens on the Internet through e-mail and the web.

  In regards to democracy, the true test of the Internet will come in this year's US presidential elections, but we hope to see that it will enhance participation by citizens in the democratic process, with all the social benefits that this brings.

6.  How can structural change be brought about fast enough to accommodate the growth of e-commerce?

  A condition of the performance reviews of all civil servants should include an appraisal of internet literacy. A condition of Members of Parliament, or members of commissions taking up their posts, should be a test of their Internet literacy. If all documents and transactions between people and their institutions could be accepted as legal over the Internet, this would make a huge difference. Digital signatures are the route to achieve this.

  The speed of response of governments to the development of e-commerce has implications for society in general. The simplest and most important one, in our view, is the effect it will have on national economies. Countries which adapt quickly will achieve higher growth rates, with lower inflation, than those countries which adapt slowly. We are accelerating into a global economy where the competitive advantage of nations and trading zones lies in the degree to which they are able to trade and transact over the Internet.

  The impact of the Internet on society and culture is extremely poorly understood. Studies in this area have been fragmented. There is no holistic view of how society and culture will change due to the effects of the Internet. We have seen seismic shifts in our own nation in the last year—but the long-term impact is not appreciated.


 
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