Outlook: E commerce

ELECTRONIC COMMERCE is growing far faster than the ability of governments' to control it. Issues of law, tax and personal privacy have long been a main obstacle to the development of electronic commerce and communication.

Scare stories about hackers downloading credit card details and going on shopping sprees are a key deterrent to committing such details to cyberspace. An odd reaction, this, given how easily we give our cards to waiters, call centres and cinema booking offices. But it shows that if a new medium is not fully understood, it is easy to deter potential users.

Now the Government is wading in. Its consultation paper on electronic commerce issued yesterday is an attempt to bring industry and government together to introduce acceptable standards that will make Britain an e- commerce "hot spot".

E-commerce is set to reach pounds 350bn worldwide by 2002, the white paper says. Six million Britons are already on-line. The advent of free Internet access providers, the launch of digital television and the coming of web- TV that incorporates an Internet connection into a TV set will help transform e-commerce into a mass market phenomenon.

What the Government is trying to do is develop a legal framework to support this explosive growth and defend if from abuse. The future, it says is in "digital signatures", legally enforceable and coded so that the criminal fraternity cannot get their mitts on them.

All this seems sensible enough, but if it is not, nobody is getting much of a chance to say so. The Government has given industry and others just three weeks to respond, an incredibly short time for an issue as important as this. Such rush is unnecessary. As rapidly as e-commerce is growing in this country, it still accounts for a tiny proportion of trade. There are numerous structural reasons why e commerce is not going to take off in Britain with the speed it has in the US, not least our cultural aversion to mail order and remote shopping. The Government ought to be taking its time in ensuring our blueprint for the digital age is absolutely spot on.

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