Moguls form global e-commerce policy group

A gaggle of high-powered communications chief executive officers announced yesterday the founding of an "unprecedented" global group that will issue policy recommendations intended to encourage the worldwide growth of electronic commerce.

The group includes such well-known American business luminaries as Steve Case of America Online, Gerald Levin of Time Warner and Jim Barksdale of Netscape Communications, as well as international moguls Thomas Middelhoff, president and CEO of Bertelsmann; Jean-Mare Messier, chairman and CEO of Vivendi; and representatives from Fujitsu, Nokia, NEC and other companies.

Calling itself the "Global Business Dialogue on E-Commerce", the group identified nine areas of critical importance to the growth of e-commerce. Among the issues are privacy, consumer confidence, taxation and tariffs, intellectual property rights and security.

Journalists at the press conference speculated aloud that the CEO convocation had emerged in response to political pressure from the European Union, which last fall approved online privacy guidelines that differ dramatically from those favoured by US-based Internet companies.

The CEOs refuted the suggestion. "The pressure comes from the dynamism of the issues," said Time Warner's Levin in response to questions. However, Messier of Vivendi did acknowledge that privacy issues are the group's top priority.

Precisely when the group will act or what its output will be remains unclear. Bertelsmann's Middelhof referred to a planned conference "in early autumn of this year", and the group's prepared statement hinted that policy statements would be forthcoming "over the next three months". But Levin pointed out that given the complexity of the issues involved, three months was "rather an aggressive time period".

The assembled group was a telling symbol of the state of e-commerce. While all of the attendees praised the growth and global reach of the Internet, very few of the companies represented made their names through the Internet. AOL and Netscape are the main exceptions -- or, now, exception.

Each of the CEOs who spoke took a firm line against government regulation of the Internet. When questioned, however, about whether government had any role to play in the medium's development, both Middelhoff and Levin agreed that there are areas -- like antitrust and fraud enforcement -- where market solutions alone are inadequate. Instead, they said that their emphasis on self-regulation was designed to keep governments from passing overly restrictive laws that might inhibit growth in a particular country or region.

"The focus (of the Internet) is shifting," said AOL's Case, "away from technology and toward policy. We're now big enough to matter."

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