E-commerce summit sparks unease

What the federal government is billing as a national summit on electronic commerce next month is sparking some unease in the e-commerce community. The discomfort centres on the summit's "invitation-only" list of Big Business delegates, and Telstra's sponsorship role.

About 300 chief executive officers from the nation's top companies have been invited to the two-day Enabling Australia E-Commerce Summit starting April 16 in Canberra. Half will be full participants and the other half will be allocated more limited "observer" status.

Organised by Telstra and the National Office for Information Economy (NOIE), the summit's speakers include Communications Minister Senator Richard Alston, Telstra head Frank Blount and special adviser to the US President Ira Magaziner.

For some observers, the summit conjures up visions of Big Government, Big Business and Big Pond taking control of the e-commerce agenda.

"It is arguable whether the most appropriate people to determine our national electronic commerce future would be Telstra and the executives of the top 150 companies," says e-commerce newsletter editor Stewart Carter.

"Electronic commerce companies and the community in Australia surely have an equal claim to be involved in making those decisions.

"There are Internet service providers, online payment system companies, Web designers and developers . . . why not these people rather than the heads of mining and manufacturing companies?"

Michael Ward, a senior executive with leading Internet service provider OzEmail, noted he had not seen the list of invitees.

"But I would hope it would be broadly representative because if the right people aren't there, it won't stimulate much action."

Jason Ashton, managing director of service provider Magna Data, said: "It does concern me if the government is only talking to big business in relation to electronic commerce." The summit was defended by Senator Alston's press secretary Terry O'Connor who said delegate numbers were restricted because "if you have 5000 people all speaking at once, nothing is achieved."

There were plans to listen to other interest groups in the e-commerce community, he said.

However the government wanted to hear from the heads of Australia's largest companies who have real world views on electronic commerce. O'Connor labelled as "strange" any criticism of Telstra's participation in the event.

"This is not a Telstra love-in or Telstra sales mission designed to tell everyone how wonderful it is." Attending the conference would be "quite a range" of senior federal ministers and some senior state ministers. The summit is meant to raise the awareness of CEOs and sensitise them and government to the mutual opportunities e-commerce will create, he said.

Also slated for release at the conference will be the findings of a report on e-commerce by Andersen Consulting and Woolcott Research.

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