FTC to Address Thorny B2B Questions at Workshop

FRAMINGHAM (06/26/2000) - B-to-B e-commerce raises a host of problems that neither business nor government is prepared to solve, according to two information technology leaders scheduled to speak at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's workshop on competitive practices in business-to-business exchanges that will be held Thursday and Friday..

Speakers at the workshop will likely address questions of liability, branding and intellectual property rights as well as the international implications of e-commerce, according to Stephen Attanasio, president and CEO of Wiznet in Delray Beach, Florida and Christopher Cogan, chairman and CEO of GoCo-op Inc. in Maitland, Florida.

The FTC wants to find out how far B-to-B has really developed. "Are we just at the beginning of the marathon, 100 yards in or so, or are we half way through?," said Attanasio.

Attanasio and Cogan will be part of a panel at the workshop called How B2Bs Work: Models and Experience.

"There's a lot of talk by the Fortune 1,000 of more efficiency (in exchanges), but for the 6 (million) to 10 million other businesses in the U.S. there is a great deal of skepticism and confusion," Attanasio said. "We are really just beginning to start the marathon."

And that, Cogan said, means a lot of companies need the government to answer basic questions, like what is the liability of a company involved in a B-to-B exchange?

Cogan's company, for example, provides technology for exchanges and hosts groups of companies who come to him to launch exchanges. But what if one of those groups was found to be engaging in anticompetitive activity?

Would the host company also be liable for any anticompetitive damages that were assessed by the government?

"You can bet I am concerned about that," Cogan said.

Attanasio said the issue of how a company can protect and project its brand also has to be considered part of the discussion. As a B-to-B exchange tries to fit its offerings into columns and rows that can be used by members, "suppliers are losing their identity," he said. Should the suppliers have the right to decide how their products are presented?

"A lot of suppliers are pulling back," Attanasio said. "If you don't do it the exactly the way I want it, why should I go on the Internet?"

That is still an open question, he said.

Even if the FTC does find answers to some of these questions, that doesn't mean those answers would be applicable elsewhere. International rules of business vary, not to mention tariffs and other international issues.

"There is a danger in the U.S. to be too arrogant and not to look out at the global market," Attanasio said.

Cogan said he is glad the FTC is looking at the issue.

"I will be perfectly honest with you, though: Nobody wants any more regulation, or government, or whatever," Cogan said.

The FTC decided to hold the workshop because it saw a need to explore the issue with representatives of both businesses and government, according to a spokeswoman at the agency.

In the past few months, the FTC and the Department of Justice have begun looking at B-to-B exchanges set up by the auto, airline and food processing industries. But the FTC spokeswoman said the agency is more interested in gathering information at this week's workshop than it is in making any judgments.

The workshop will start June 29, at the Department of Agriculture's headquarters building on Independence Avenue, SW, between 12th and 14th Streets, SW. The sign-in period begins at 7:30 a.m. and the workshop begins at 9 a.m.

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