Irish panel to arbitrate on virtual wrangles

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The Independent Online

In its bid to become the most e-business friendly environment in Europe, the Irish government is setting up the first official panel for arbitrating online disputes. It hopes that with a reputation for fair and transparent handling of e-commerce, the country will attract indigenous start-up companies and US groups looking for a foothold in Europe.

In its bid to become the most e-business friendly environment in Europe, the Irish government is setting up the first official panel for arbitrating online disputes. It hopes that with a reputation for fair and transparent handling of e-commerce, the country will attract indigenous start-up companies and US groups looking for a foothold in Europe.

The fledgling body, which expects to try its first case later this year, has been set up by the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE). Dublin has already deployed highly successful strategies for rapidly educating the population in computer skills, and for dispelling bureaucratic baggage by offering low taxes to businesses.

The panel will be called on to settle matters ranging from failure properly to deliver products purchased online, and the replacement of faulty goods, to arguments over pricing and exchange rates. It may also judge in disputes arising from business-to-business trade over the web.

The trade potential is regarded by many, including the Irish government, as the key to commercial internet success. On the net, volumes involved in transactions between businesses are big enough to be worthwhile, but by its nature, the medium is also an area prone to legal squabbles.

Panel members are already examining test cases which involve patents, copyrights and trademarks. Some of these are drawn from examples in the US.

However, the government is keen to send the message that the project is Euro-centric. "Similar disputes in the US can often get cluttered with too much litigation," said a department spokesperson. "We want this arbitration panel to work smoothly so people will trust it, and trust Dublin in general."

The concept of trust over the net is central to much of the Irish government's thinking. As part of its wider attempt to establish what it calls "e-government", it has become one of the first countries to recognise electronic signatures as legally binding.

In a recently drafted contracts bill, the DETE and Department of Public Enterprise have set up a regulatory framework to boost confidence in e-business. The bill gives to electronic contracts the same status as that enjoyed by the paper counterparts, and makes electronic evidence admissible in court. The bill is expected to be enacted before the autumn.

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