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Internet issues

Elly Plooij-van Gorsel

Last week, President Clinton declared that in the USA all obstacles hindering the full development of electronic commerce will be removed. And he asked other countries to do the same, thus creating a free trade zone for commercial activities via the Internet.

Clinton stresses that electronic commerce has to be developed to its full potential leading to increased dynamism in the market, and thus to the creation of new businesses and jobs. In my view, a more effective plan than a chapter about employment in the Treaty of Amsterdam. I do hope that the delegates of this Conference will come to the same conclusion and will support Clinton's idea.

A global market for electronic commerce will not develop without global trust and confidence of consumers in the instruments, processes and networks of electronic commerce. Therefore we, as politicians and decisionmakers need to create the effective protection of public interest objectives such as privacy, intellectual property rights and consumer protection. A legal framework covering these issues has to be created.

But what kind of regulatory framework are we talking about exactly? The question is easy, the answer is not.

Take for example the sensitive question of digital signatures. Digital signatures are used in many different types of applications, like network security, identification, electronic cash, or electronic transactions. Legislation has to take into account all these types of applications and the potentially different legal issues they present.

But then, once we made regulations concerning digital signatures, the market may come up with other, perhaps less expensive solutions, not covered by such legislation. We should be careful that our regulatory activities do not prevent market players from finding other solutions which could also be acceptable.

Moreover, only the use of digital signatures in particular cases should be regulated. For example in the exchange of information between public authorities and the citizen, or in certain legal procedures. For other cases, contractual freedom should be preserved.

A digital signature is only as strong as its weakest building block. To guarantee its strength certain minimum technical and legal requirements are needed. Different national technical requirements and unsynchronised adaptation to technical progress in the member states will lead to new distortions of the single market. If national governments decide that protection of the consumer requires regulation, then the same regulation should apply in the whole European Union. Imagine a situation whereby that if I travel to France, before I go I first have to remove certain programmes from my lap top computer because in France this software is forbidden! This would be an obstacle to the free movement of persons and the proper functioning of the internal market. Of course not only European legislation but world-wide agreements on digital signatures are needed, preferably within the framework of the WTO.

A dilemma which has no simple solution is the protection of privacy in relation to security. It is difficult for governments to resist the temptation to give priority to security above the privacy of the citizen. Key amongst confidence-building measures is the need to safeguard the individual's and a company's right to privacy, while avoiding obstacles to electronic commerce. Regulation should be privacy-friendly. Public certificates should only contain the minimum information required to accomplish their purpose.

A last point which I would like to mention and which is indirectly related to electronic commerce, is the millennium problem.

In the year 2000 many computer programmes will crash. This problem is seriously underestimated in Europe. It may even lead to the closure or bankruptcy of companies, because investments to prevent the millennium problem do not always balance the output.

But not only businesses are affected. Public authorities themselves will also encounter difficulties. Think for example of hospitals, public transport, energy companies, etc. Every public service uses computers and will have to deal with the millennium problem. Solutions and investment are needed to ensure a proper functioning of our authorities and to make them ready for the 21st century: the communications age. The ICT-programme of the Fifth Framework Programme can and should contribute to this. I will see to it myself that sufficient financial means are allocated to ICT's in the Parliament's decision on the Fifth Framework Programme.


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