Theme Paper

Foreword | Table of Contents | Building confidence

1. INTRODUCTION

Global Information Networks are transforming the world and drawing people closer together through improved global communication: the vision of a Global Information Society is taking shape. It is making possible profound economic and social transformations which are diffusing through all realms of human activity. The rapid and coherent development of the Information Society has become essential to nations' competitiveness, employment and living standards. Europe must realise the full potential .

New, advanced multimedia technologies for information and communication are converging and are being incorporated into new products and services for daily life - in business, public service and personal domains. This offers new opportunities for growth and for society as a whole through:

Producers, service providers and users benefit in many ways from these developments: they obtain access world-wide to information and entertainment easily and economically; they can, with equal ease, transmit information world-wide establishing new information and communication channels for business or community endeavours.

Electronic commerce will be one of the key drivers of the Global Information Infrastructure and a major building block of the Information Society in Europe. It will also have a considerable impact on Europe's competitiveness on world markets.

Time and distance cease to be handicaps with the new technologies. This is of particular significance to widely-dispersed communities or for regions far from the main centres of population.

Global networks also offer enormous scope for diversity. Content may address a mass audience or a small group of experts or enthusiasts, and aim to have a global or a purely local reach. Items may be made available on highly specialised subjects or in less-widely used languages in cases where traditional means of distribution might not be economic.

Governments will be able to use Global Networks in order to improve the quality of services offered to the citizen, in particular advice on their civic rights and duties and information on the activities of government departments at each level from national to local. There will be scope to engage in a continuous dialogue with citizens. Governments, like the private sector, may use Global Networks to improve their operating efficiency through better communication and flow of information, and as a partner in electronic commerce.

Global Information Networks, such as the Internet, know no national borders; their outstanding features are their global dimension and their open availability to all users. The international nature of the networks reduces the effectiveness of purely national initiatives and is a strong argument for enhanced international co-operation and for international agreement to be reached wherever possible on the objectives to be pursued and the best means of achieving those objectives.

Governments must therefore be prepared to work together at a global level, with a common understanding, to further promote and foster the establishment and use of Global Information Infrastructures. Special attention should be given to the consequence of convergence technologies for the regulatory framework. Governments can in particular provide a stable and predictable legal framework ensuring a fair balance between the interests of producers and those of consumers of electronic goods and services.

Governments have an essential role to play in ensuring that the education system takes account of new technologies and uses them to the fullest extent for teaching. It is important that the learning process should be life-long and that appropriate facilities be available. As already mentioned, global networks have a vital role to play in eliminating the disadvantages of regions at a distance from traditional centres of economic activity, and governments can ensure that the necessary infrastructure is made available and that users can have affordable access to it.

Market opening is central to the rapid growth in the use of new services and of the take-up of innovative technologies, in accordance with the eight Core Principlesagreed at the G7 Brussels Conference in February 1995 which called on governments to ensure an appropriate framework aiming at stimulating private investment and usage for the benefits of all citizens. These principles are

These Principles have become guiding principles for the leading industrial nations in their national strategies and action programmes.

The advantages of Global Information Networks will only be realised if the necessary adaptations are made to the existing legal and regulatory framework, so as to ensure that it fully meets new requirements. New regulations should only be adopted where they are necessary in the public interest, and other approaches should be used if they can achieve the same objectives in a way which provides greater flexibility and stimulation of the potential of those involved. Since this encompasses a variety of legal domains and policies it is absolutely necessary that initiatives, whether by governments or by the private sector, be co-ordinated with all concerned players. It is particularly important in this context that the personal rights of citizens, who are increasingly required to use the advanced technology of the Information Society, are adequately protected.

A number of important global agreements have recently been concluded. The Ministerial Declaration on Trade in Information Technology Products agreed upon in Singapore on 13 December 1996 provides for the expansion of world trade in information technology products. Since then negotiations have been concluded, with the result that tariffs on IT products will gradually be reduced to zero by 1 January 2000. The agreement covers 90% of world trade in IT products.

The WTO agreement on basic telecommunications services concluded in Geneva on 15 February 1997 provides for measures of liberalisation in 70 countries representing more than 90% of the global telecommunications market.

The WIPO Diplomatic Conference on certain copyright and neighbouring rights questions, held at Geneva from 2 to 20 December 1996, adopted two new treaties in this field. The WIPO Copyright Treaty confirms the application of the fundamental principles of the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works to new technologies, in particular the right of reproduction, and improves the provisions relating to communication to the public. With respect to neighbouring rights, the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty updates the Rome Convention of 1961, and constitutes a major step forward for the protection of performing artists and phonogram producers. A recommendation was also made to continue preparatory work on the adoption of a protocol on the rights of performers on the audio-visual fixations of their performances and a Treaty on intellectual property in respect of databases.

Therefore so far as the infrastructure is concerned, important political steps on the way to create a framework within which market forces can develop and ultimately lead to prosperity and employment are being taken. Now the focus should shift from the infrastructure to the creation and transmission of content as well as to the development of value-added services in order to exploit fully the benefits of the global networks.

The Bonn Conference should be a clear political signal to announce this shift in focus; the Bonn Declaration must become the starting point for commerce and content driven developments to exploit the potential of the liberalised infrastructure in an environment which secures users' rights and interests and the general interests of society.

The Bonn Conference therefore presents an unique opportunity for Europe to make its mark in the Global Information Society where it really counts: in developing the content and the commerce that will generate the benefits in terms of competitiveness, growth and employment.

The pattern of global and regional alliances and the globalisation of information, particularly via the Internet, show that the market, operating within a clear and predictable regulatory framework, is responding to the opportunities offered by competition and liberalisation. It is offering benefits to every citizen in terms of prices, quality and choice. While much has been achieved, more still needs be done.

The discussion which follows aims to concentrate attention on those areas where the development of the Global Information Networks might benefit from constructive and enlightened use of the powers of government. It aims to give due weight to the legitimate interests of industry and of users.

2. OVERRIDING GENERAL PRINCIPLES

Fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and expression and the respect of privacy of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data, constitute the basis of democratic societies and must be respected in any attempt to find international agreement on the use of Global Information Networks. These rights and their limits are expressed in the European Convention of Human Rights and in national constitutions, laws and traditions.

Such rights and freedom of expression are not unlimited and a balance must be struck between them and protection of other interests of society in general and of individuals, such as preserving national security, maintaining public order, safeguarding human dignity, protecting the vulnerable and protection of intellectual property. The law should also provide adequate protection for individuals' reputations and privacy and provide consumer protection.

For example, different States attach varying degrees of importance to the principle of freedom of expression, depending on their cultural traditions and legal bases. Some consequently have a general prohibition on any form of central control over the mass media and thus give pride of place to self-regulation. In others, State protection of interests such as public morality and vulnerable minors entails advance censorship in the relevant cases.

When applying these general principles, restrictions on the use of Global Information Networks should reflect and complement existing law already in application for traditional print-based and audiovisual forms of expression, with a view to safeguard the existing balance between freedom of expression and the other interests mentioned. New regulations should only be adopted where they are necessary in the public interest.

Foreword | Table of Contents | Building confidence

Home - Gate - Back - Top - Intro - Relevant