The following text is copyright 1997 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

If governments act appropriately

In a somewhat schizophrenic draft document the U.S. government recently published a road map of the directions it intends to follow in establishing a A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce ( The framework starts out paying homage to fabled Global Information Infrastructure (GII), you know, that future network that was going to replace the unreliable, academically-oriented Internet. It then tries to bring in the actual Internet by saying that it is a force that embodies the GII trend (and all this time I thought that the Internet was living the tale that the GII tried to tell).

Anyway, this is a pretty good draft which proposes five principles to be used in "international discussions or agreements to facilitate the growth of commerce on the Internet". In this day and age they seem almost applehood and mother pie: 1) the private sector should lead, 2) governments should avoid undue restrictions on electronic commerce, 3) where government involvement is needed. its aim should be to support and enforce predictable, minimalist, consistent and simple legal environment for commerce, 4) governments should recognize the unique qualities of the Internet, and 5) electronic commerce over the Internet should be facilitated on an international basis.

The draft warns against new taxes on commerce over the Internet (current taxes are OK - if you buy a car using a web browser you are not exempted from taxes), but figuring out where the sale was made for the purpose of deciding which government gets the money will be fun. It seems to be a bit worried (with cause) about the implications of purely electronic money services, and warns that "some government guidance may be needed on issues that the marketplace alone may not be well equipped to address." (I'm from the government, here to help you. -- ominous music in the background) The draft then espouses the need for a uniform commercial code for commerce conducted on the Internet.

The draft gets a bit funny (and not ha ha funny) when talking about data privacy. It recommends that consumers be told what data is being gathered about them and be given the ability to limit the use of personal data. Both of those are very good, but the draft also implies that the existing European restrictions designed to ensure the privacy of personal data get in the way of commerce and should be removed. When it comes to a crunch sacrifice the individual's right to privacy on the alter of commerce.

The draft, as all would expect, is seriously schizoid when talking about encryption, saying that good encryption is vital to good commerce and to protect the network itself but then continuing to espouse restrictions on the export of technology already widely available elsewhere, thus making US companies stay in the barn when the horse has long gone.

Finally the draft is sad, even a bit pathetic, as it credits the growth of the Internet to the IETF procedure of test before standardization but is unable to actually mention the IETF itself, limiting itself to the traditional standards bodies which have had almost nothing to do with the success of the Internet.

All in all this draft is a good start, more than a bit littered with myopia on encryption policy, misjudgments on the relative value of personal privacy and corporate revenues, and antipathy for the IETF. Get rid of some of that trash and this road could look quite good and, as the draft puts it, "if governments act appropriately, this opportunity can be realized for the benefit of all people."

disclaimer: I did not consult with anyone at the Harvard Business School (molders of commerce molders) so the above must be my opinions.