Network: Labour's Plan To Get Britain Wired

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The Independent Culture
THE GOVERNMENT chose UK Technology Week to announce a Green Paper, Net Benefit, outlining its electronic commerce agenda.

Labour has high hopes for e-commerce and the Internet as a source of jobs and prosperity, according to the paper. Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry believe the UK has a head start over much of Europe as a centre for the "knowledge-based economy". E-commerce is especially relevant to smaller businesses, the Government believes. It means that size and location are no longer barriers - but a lack of technical know- how and skills certainly are.

The UK has a number of advantages, including a competitive telecoms market, and close cultural and scientific ties with the United States. Although the UK lags behind the US in Internet usage, it is ahead of the larger EU nations.

Some 63 per cent of UK firms, for example, use e-mail, and 10 per cent of the UK population is online, according to figures compiled for the DTI. In the US, 65 per cent of companies e-mail and 21 per cent of the population has access to the Net. However, 48 per cent of German businesses have e-mail; in France the figure falls to 41 per cent. Five per cent of Germans are online, and just 1 per cent of the French have Net access.

The Government wants to encourage more businesses and individuals to adopt new technologies. "We are not just talking about hi-tech firms, but all businesses," explains Barbara Roche, Under-Secretary of State for Small Firms.

"Convergence poses a major challenge for businesses," Roche says. "E-commerce is vital for creating our vision of tomorrow's Britain. We believe that if we work together it can bring enormous benefits."

For that to happen, the legal and regulatory framework has to be right. Consumer protection, taxation, security, and privacy regulations all need to strike the right balance. As broadcasting, computing and telecommunications move closer, regulations are struggling to keep up.

"Convergence does pose real challenges to the regulatory system," Roche says. "How can we develop a regulatory framework for intellectual property rights? What are the implications for competition policy?"

The Government plans to work with Internet industry and businesses to boost consumer confidence in using the Net. It also plans to take the lead in protecting intellectual property rights and reforming tax and data protection rules. Whether it can do so remains to be seen.

Net Benefit: