UK firms warned over Net impact

FINAL PREPARATIONS for the Government's long-awaited bill to provide a legal framework for electronic commerce are coinciding with warnings from several top US hi-tech executives that British companies are in danger of underestimating how the internet will impact their business.

The e-commerce bill, which is expected to be tabled before Parliament within days, comes at a crucial juncture in the on-line sector's development.

Ray Lane, chief operating officer of Oracle, the second largest global software group, warns that European and British companies may be impeded by the plethora of national regulatory bodies they face. "I definitely think there's a danger of artificial boundaries being put up within Europe on issues like tax and security," he said. "There are so many regulatory bodies that can get in the way that it could slow down the development of the internet and commercial applications across Europe."

Mr Lane's concerns echo other hi-tech industry executives who believe that early liberalisation of Britain's telecoms sector spurred network investment, giving the UK an opportunity to become the Internet hub of Europe.

In a speech today, DTI minister Michael Wills will argue that e-commerce regulation needs to be light in touch. As evidence of the Government's flexibility in the face of IT industry criticism, he will also indicate that an earlier proposal to register cryptographic codes with third parties has been abandoned.