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Friday, June 25, 1999 Published at 02:26 GMT 03:26 UK


E-commerce bill 'imminent'

The DTI says the e-commerce bill is ready

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The UK Government plans to introduce long-awaited legislation next week aimed at making Britain the best environment in the world for online trade.

But the e-commerce legislation is now expected to be called the Electronic Communications bill and the appointment of an Internet czar or e-envoy, to promote e-commerce, appears to have been postponed until at least the end of the summer.

The Department of Trade and Industry minister Michael Wills, while declining to divulge dates or details, told a conference on Thursday that the bill was now imminent.

Encryption delays to bill

"There's no real hold-up in the bill. We have had to resolve some very complex issues, but it's ready to go now," he told the Business on the Internet conference in London, organised by The Fabian Society and Computer Weekly.

The minister explained Opposition MPs still needed to be involved in examining the draft before it was introduced in parliament and this was now the only reason for delay.

The legislation has principally been held up by uncertainty over whether to include provisions for key escrow - the holding of keys to encrypted data by licensed Trusted Third Parties.

Law enforcement agencies had pressed for this to allow them access to the keys to unlock coded data when they suspected criminal activity. But civil liberties groups condemned the concept and industry said it would drive business away from the UK.

Government promotes 'co-regulation'

Mr Wills said this had now been resolved and the government had developed "a third way" of addressing the problem of government being too slow to regulate in the face of a rapidly changing environment.

"Co-regulation is now our preferred approach. We set the broad objectives and task the private sector to design flexible solutions."

A joint forum on encryption would be set up with industry and civil servants rather than government mandating action, he said

"We have a world-class IT infrastructure, we are at the leading edge of developing the e-commerce market, we are well placed but we cannot be complacent," he concluded.

'Legislation may be unnecessary'

Speaking at the same conference, the Labour MP Martin O'Neill, chair of the Trade and Industry Select Committee that produced a report critical of the government's progress on e-commerce, said legislation was not necessarily the answer.

"The fact that neither the much-vaunted bill nor the e-envoy have appeared need not concern us," he said.

"Our investigations suggested that individual companies and consumers could create the sense of security needed. We concluded that the long-standing relationships in the field didn't have to be interfered with, there is no need to reinvent the wheel."

He described the government's target of making the UK the most e-commerce-friendly environment on Earth by 2002 as "ambitious".

"It has already taken an awful long time to get the e-commerce bill to where it is now. There will be a need for secondary legislation, don't get hooked on the bill itself, what comes after will be just as important."

E-minister possible

The intention to legislate on e-commerce was officially announced in the Queen's Speech last November. The job of "e-envoy" to promote it was advertised in December and an appointment should have been made in March.

An announcement is now expected after the publication of an innovation report in August. The post could be re-advertised or redefined as a more powerful position.

Asked to speculate, Mr O'Neill said: "There's a view emerging that it may be an e-minister rather than an e-ambassador. But if you have a department with a specific purpose, you have to ask how many tanks and how many generals it has. If the answer is not many, it's better inside or as a satellite of another department, having the support of a cabinet minister."

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