CEOs aim to set global rules for e-business

Chief executives from some of the world's largest telecommunications, media and computing companies were scheduled to assemble in Paris today to try and establish industry-defined guidelines which they say are necessary to allow e-commerce to flourish.

The initiative, called the Global Business Dialogue on E-Commerce (GBDe), was launched officially in January. Its main goal is to prevent a situation in which national governments create a patchwork of conflicting policies and laws that could create obstacles to the emerging online economy.

"We thought we could look at across-the-board issues coming up in global e-commerce, and try to establish a truly global position for the industry to build upon," said Bob Kirkwood, director of government and educational affairs with Hewlett-Packard, which is represented on the GBDe.

Among those scheduled to speak this week are Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner and Thomas Middlehoff, CEO of Bertelsmann AG, as well as senior executives from Fujitsu and Telefonica SA. Also attending will be US Secretary of Commerce William Daley and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

The GBDe has identified nine issues, including taxation and tariffs, intellectual property rights, consumer confidence, and authentication and security, where they say uniform guidelines are needed to foster online commerce. Working groups within the GDBe have prepared papers on each of the issues, which will be summarised in oral presentations today.

The initiative is "a work in progress", and no policies are expected to be finalised this week, said Scott Cooper, manager for technology policy at HP. The issue papers will be distributed for approval by the participating companies, and presented to world governments for consideration in the coming months.

One matter the GBDe is concerned about is a European Union directive that prohibits companies from sending personal data outside of Europe unless the country it's being sent to meets certain privacy standards.

"While the goals [of such regulations] are ones we all agree on, the jury is still out on the best way to achieve them," Cooper said. Because the internet is in such an early stage of its development, such blanket regulations should be avoided, he added.

The GBDe will recommend at the meeting that an "alternate dispute resolution" system be established that consumers can turn to when a company violates the self-regulatory guidelines set by industry. The resolution system may be fashioned after the Better Business Bureau, a watchdog group operating in the US and Canada, which fields consumer complaints and helps resolve disputes out of court.

While the scope of the GBDe's efforts may be unprecedented, such efforts to preempt government legislation with industry-led initiatives are not new. Last year, America Online, Microsoft and others formed the Online Privacy Alliance to address concerns about how consumer data is used. The program encourages companies to display a "seal of approval" on their Web site as a sign that they conform to certain privacy standards.

Some consumer advocacy groups are sceptical that industry self-regulation will provide adequate protection for consumers, however.

"In the two critical areas of privacy and consumer protection, I think consumers believe the government has an important role to play in protecting basic standards," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington, DC.

Existing efforts at self regulation haven't proved to be a runaway success, he added.

"The assessment ... is that self-regulation isn't working. With a self-regulatory program, industry is dictating the terms under which it will operate to consumers. They say, 'Here's our policy, you can take it or leave it.' That doesn't promote protection and trust, and it gives consumers few places to turn."

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