Governments Must Seize Internet Opportunities

TAIPEI (06/14/2000) - Governments have to seize the chance to deliver better and faster services using the Internet, a series of leaders said this week at the World Congress on Information Technology here.

The leaders also said the public sector has to help make information technology and Internet access universally available rather than limited to privileged citizens and countries, echoing a theme raised repeatedly at the three-day conference, which concludes Wednesday.

While U.S. and U.K. representatives touted efforts to wire schools, libraries and community centers, a Singapore official took a global perspective on tackling the so-called digital divide, pointing out that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has launched an initiative to create a greater presence for that region on the Internet.

A special panel on the initiative, which is called e-ASEAN, will present its recommendations by year's end to the leaders of ASEAN, said Lim Swee Say, Singapore's minister of state for communications and information technology and for trade and industry.

He said rapid Internet development is critical for Asia noting the region still lags far behind the U.S. and Europe in penetration of Internet access, with only 2.5 percent of the population connected. That gap won't be filled overnight, he said.

"We have to recognize there will be a digital divide globally," Lim said.

In the U.K., government efforts to make services accessible online are transforming not only public agencies' interface to the people, but government itself, said Patricia Hewitt, the U.K.'s minister for small business and e-commerce.

"We want citizens to be able to access government anytime, anywhere and using any device, wired or wireless," said Hewitt.

Putting government services online is at last forcing agencies to focus more on services, which usually are provided by several departments, than on internal bureaucracy, Hewitt said.

"We've got vertical silos, when what we need are horizontal processes," she said.

Offering unified services, such as for changes of address, also is leading to more partnerships between the government and private companies, Hewitt added.

The head of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Electronic Commerce, Virginia Governor James Gilmore III, cautioned against government invasion of online privacy and taxation of Internet commerce.

"All of these ideas are abhorrent to free men and women everywhere," Gilmore said, noting a European Union proposal to collect value-added tax on e-commerce transactions and to obtain European consumers' online passwords to enforce those taxesThe borderless nature of the Internet can pose new dangers for governments, he added.

"We all recognize that each nation-state must set its own national policies, but a global Internet policy, or a new reality, may emerge that might be (hard) for any nation to control or regulate -- even within its own borders," Gilmore said.

Gilmore noted that a congressional advisory panel on terrorism, which he leads, is expanding its scope to look at cyber-terrorism in addition to weapons of mass destruction such as biological and nuclear weapons.

"We should take a firm stand that terrorist or other criminal acts on the Internet will not be tolerated anywhere in the world," Gilmore said.

Singapore's Lim said that in addition to building a broadband infrastructure that can reach all residents, the country's government is working to foster development of content in four local languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

Last week, the Singapore government announced it will spend S$1.5 billion (US$872 million) over the next three years to put all key government services onto the Web for public access and turn its 30,000 civil servants into knowledge workers. [See "Singapore Invests $870M in Gov't Digital Services," June 6.]Looking toward a greater Internet role for Asia, where Singapore has touted itself as the most advanced regional Internet hub, Lim struck a careful balance.

"What will make sense for Asia-Pacific is for us to find ways to compete, but more importantly, ways to cooperate," he said.

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