U.K., Dutch Prime Ministers Hear E-Commerce Reform Ideas

BOSTON (03/15/2000) - European Union member states should develop a cohesive approach to ease the way for e-commerce, removing obstacles for businesses and encouraging use of the Internet through reform measures, according to suggestions made today during a discussion in preparation for the European Council summit in Lisbon next week.

U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok heard from various Internet "dot-com" business executives during the 45-minute meeting at Downing Street, which was broadcast over the Web.

Both Blair and Kok noted that Europe continues to lag behind the U.S. when it comes to Internet access and e-commerce, but Europe is poised to push ahead, particularly given that it already leads in the use of digital television and mobile communications. Differing national policies and taxation continue to hamper further growth of e-commerce in European nations, the political leaders and dot-com executives agreed.

"So, in Lisbon therefore, we need to concentrate on a cohesive vision," Kok said in his opening remarks, adding that "obstacles for business-to-business e-commerce have to be removed" and the EU nations must work to stimulate innovation. But besides presenting a united front, European governments also must continue to work toward e-commerce reforms on a national level.

Although much of the discussion focused on broad ideas related to reform, Tim Jackson arrived at 10 Downing St. with some specific proposals in mind. Jackson is a journalist who founded QXL.com PLC, a Pan-European online auction site, in September 1997, and now serves the company as a non-executive director.

He suggested that European nations must reduce the cost of broadband Internet access, mandate an emergency mobile location service and work out verification processes to assure consumers that their online transactions are secure.

Although the emergency mobile location mandate seems a tad off the e-commerce target, Jackson explained how it could be effectively used by online companies.

Though the mandate generally would apply to requiring emergency services to automatically locate any mobile device used to summon help, such a location function also would enable "opportunities to tell (mobile users) where the nearest pizza parlor is," for instance, or make it easier to call for a taxi.

Blair and Kok were repeatedly told that a major thrust of Pan-European e-commerce reform must be to overcome obstacles. For instance, Barbara Cassani of Go Fly Ltd., a discount airline that books and sells tickets online, said that her company can't accommodate the wishes of some customers to use debit cards to pay for online transactions due to restrictions it faces because its call center is based in London.

Danish customers, she said, prefer to use debit cards rather than credit cards, and so that hurts the company's business.

Rather than wishing government would intervene more, her desire is that government step aside and not place so many policies and restrictions on e-commerce.

"I've always been contrary, but I think the less you do the better, to be blunt," she said.

Along those lines, it also was suggested to Blair and Kok that Europe's leaders consider an Internet tax moratorium, akin to what the U.S. Congress has done.

Blair and Kok both said at the end of the meeting that what they want most is to remove obstacles to e-commerce growth in Europe, and that means having governments serve as partners to businesses. Beyond that, Blair said it is important for people to accept that "it's a completely different world" now that the Internet has become an economic force.

It's important to help citizens to understand that, to accept that technology is changing their lives, but to also be comfortable with the changes. Key to that is an understanding of what the Internet is.

"It's just a device that makes it easier for people to communicate with each other," Blair said.

Additional information about the summit can be found at http://www.number-10-gov.uk/, where a transcript of the meeting is expected to be posted in the coming days.

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