It has been quite a week for news that will affect the way the Internet and the World Wide Web is likely to develop. The US Justice Department and 20 states' Attorneys General threw the collective book at software giant Microsoft over its Web browser. This case will drag on for some time before it is resolved. It has, after all, taken the Justice Department eight years to get to this point. It first began investigating Microsoft in 1990.

Of more immediate significance to anybody who already surfs the Web is the decision reached at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva this week. A deal was put forward that would bar governments for the next year from trying to collect tariffs on computer programmes and any other electronic goods delivered across national frontiers via the Internet.

The proposal does not cover Internet shopping involving products ordered from a Website and delivered by ordinary mail. What this means is that you can buy and download software from a Website in the US, for example, without creating a potential Value Added Tax liability for yourself. However, if you order the software on disc or CD together with a manual and it is delivered by the postman, you will have to pay VAT.

You can keep up to date with developments on the case against Microsoft and on the trade issue by checking out the Justice Department and WTO Websites.

Among recent newcomers to the Web, Bath-based traded endowment policy (TEP) firm PolicyPlus has established an attractive site. No doubt on the grounds that we need our hands firmly holding in cyberspace, the site offers a cuddly corporate guide to lead the way. He appears to be a refugee from the Asterix range of books, a Roman soldier by the name of Policy- Plusius. It leaves me wondering who gets paid to think up things like this but I suppose with the "plus" of PolicyPlus being a latin word the choice of mascot was obvious, if not Obvius. My own reaction is that he appears to be Ridiculus.

Nevertheless, the site does achieve its aim of clarifying the process of buying and selling traded endowment policies. For all that he is a gimmick, PolicyPlusius does serve a useful purpose as a link to the site's Jargon Buster. If there is any word or phrase which you do not understand you may either click on him or on the word itself to go to the Jargon Buster for an explanation.

If you are thinking of selling your endowment policy, PolicyPlus will value it for you providing that it has run for at least 25 per cent of its term or a minimum of seven years and has a surrender value of at least pounds 2,000. There is an on-line Quotation Request Form that you can fill in to receive a free, no obligation valuation within 48 hours or less, which is guaranteed for a period of 15 days (even if bonus rates fall during that time).

There is a brief explanation on the Website telling you how the company arrives at its valuations. PolicyPlus takes the current value of a policy, applies the current bonus rates, both reversionary and terminal, through to maturity. This Formula Maturity Value is then discounted back to the current date to arrive at a purchase price.

The site also caters for potential policy purchasers. PolicyPlus provides explanations of the taxation and legal issues involved in TEPs and includes information from life companies. There is a list on the site of the TEPs currently available on the company's books and you may also register to receive sales lists of available policies updated on a weekly basis.

PolicyPlus claims to be unusual among TEP marketmakers in having appointed an independent firm of solicitors to handle the legal aspects of its TEP sales and purchases. No charge is made on customers for the involvement of the firm, Thrings & Long. It is the largest firm of solicitors in Bath and has been in business for more than 200 years.

There is also a telephone helpline for those who remained mystified by the workings of the Web or who prefer not to commit their policy details or requirements to cyberspace.


US Justice Dept:

World Trade Organisation: