Guest column: Who rules the World Wide Web?

Who will force an American ISP (Internet service provider) to take down a server that hosts a bookseller selling titles that are banned in most Islamic countries? Should that ISP be forced to filter the content served to Iran, or should the Iranian ISP be forced to filter the content coming in? What governing authority, if any, should settle such differences?

"One country can't rule the world," says Andrew Pincus, general counsel at the US Department of Commerce, speaking last week to attendees at a gathering of policy makers hoping to lay down the rules of a global e-commerce marketplace.

Because e-commerce is evolving on a daily basis, it creates unique problems for those who make government policy. Words like "jurisdiction", "product" and "law" have to be redefined.

Add to that the fact that Net business could be highly beneficial to global trade and you have a highly attractive political cause. And since government officials tend to be creatures of habit, the knee-jerk reaction is to regulate the industry.

"The risk here is that government may act quickly and in the wrong way," says Pincus. The challenge, he says, is for policy makers to understand what governments need to do to enable e-commerce but not to do things to stunt its growth -- because in government, "once something is in place, it's hard to change".

"There's an opportunity for making mistakes by using the wrong analogy," says David Beier, chief domestic policy advisor in the office of the Vice President. Rather than industrial revolution concepts like antitrust or regulation, Beier says we need "a new legal paradigm for the regulation of the Internet".

Beier points to current negotiations between the US and the European Union on proper online privacy protection as a possible model for other online-policy discussions.

Beier laid out other areas of concern facing e-commerce policymakers worldwide. The Net's infrastructure must be sufficient to support expanding access to broadband technology in the US. It will also be important to gauge the social impact of leaving rural societies, such as can be found in Africa, out of the digital economy -- as well as the impact of bringing them in.

The University of California E-conomy Project has called the conference, "The Digital Economy in International Perspective: Common Construction or Regional Rivalry?" The E-conomy Project is a new collaboration of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, the College of Engineering, the Haas School of Business, and the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley. It also involves participating faculty from other UCB departments, as well as from other University of California campuses.

"We hope to frame and begin an international dialogue on the growth and spread of e-commerce," says John Zysman, University of California professor and co-director of BRIE. There are huge common gains if industry and governments manage an effective transition to a digital economy, according to Zysman, who adds, "We are getting regulated, we might as well do it correctly."

Industry, academic and policy experts from the US, Europe and Asia are set to discuss differences in technology infrastructure and usage as well as emerging legal and regulatory issues. These must be dealt with in order to end up with a single, worldwide, digital economy rather than many individual ones. The conference comes on the heels of the Department of Commerce's two-day summit aimed at understanding how to measure the progress of the digital economy in key policy areas.

"We in the government are probably the last to know about what all of you do," says Beier, calling on those who live on Internet time to make policy makers aware of potential policy issues as they arise.

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