Clinton urges free trade for cyberspace

When it comes to new technology, President Bill Clinton has admitted that he is still at the start of the learning curve: he said last month he would have his daughter, Chelsea, teach him how to use e-mail before she went to university in California this autumn.

But the US president's openness to the possibilities of computers and the Internet have persuaded him that for the time being at least, technological development, electronic information - and (just coincidentally) the interests of US-based companies like Microsoft that have pioneered the technology - should be given free rein.

After a White House meeting on Tuesday afternoon to consider a report on electronic commerce, Mr Clinton described the Net as an "engine for future economic growth". The US, he promised, would act "to ensure that international trade on the Internet remains free of new discriminatory taxes, free of tariffs, free from burdens and regulations, and safe from piracy".

The report, compiled in close consultation with industry leaders, including Microsoft's Bill Gates, had argued that no new taxes or tariffs be levied on transactions over the Net, and that government should not set technical standards. It would be left to the industry competition to determine the type of technology that would become dominant.

Mr Clinton acknowledged that some would want more regulation but, he said: "In many ways, electronic commerce is like the Wild West for the global economy."

The duty of government was "to ensure that it's safe and stable terrain for those who wish to trade on it" - but there its involvement would stop.

Naming Vice-President Al Gore as overseer of US Internet policy, Mr Clinton announced a series of initiatives to be enacted over the next 12 months. They included discussions with the World Trade Organisation to have the Net declared a global free-trade zone; work with the computer industry to develop technology and codes of conduct to ensure individuals' privacy, and encouragement to firms to develop "blocking" technology, like the "V-chip" to prevent children from seeing unsuitable material.

Mr Clinton's concerns on this score were heightened by the ruling of the Supreme Court last week that legislation already passed by Congress to censor the Net was unconstitutional. In attempting to protect children, the court decided, Congress had violated the rights of adults.

Recognising the strong lobbying power of the family values campaigners, Mr Clinton had pledged that some way - perhaps through technology - would be found to protect children from unsuitable material on the Net.

Mr Clinton's hands-off intentions towards the Net were praised by industry leaders. The president of America Online, Steve Case, said that "inconsistent and varied policies" regarding the Internet, including tax policy, could limit the ability of companies to participate in electronic commerce.

The administration will continue to restrict the sale of encryption devices, despite industry arguments that the technology will soon be so widespread that restrictions will be meaningless, and it has done little to enforce protection of copyright.