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Monday, August 9, 1999 Published at 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK

Business: The Economy

UK 'lacks urgency' over e-commerce

The select committee's report looks at wider issues of e-commerce

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The UK government has been criticised by a committee of MPs for a "yawning gap between ambition and achievement" in the promotion of electronic commerce.

Martin O'Neill on the e-envoy and e-commerce
The Trade and Industry Select Committee says in a report that it is concerned at the lack of urgency in bringing forward an Electronic Commerce Bill and appointing an Internet czar or e-envoy as promised.

The chairman of the committee, Martin O'Neill, told a news conference on Monday that there was frustration both inside and outside government that an e-envoy had not been appointed.

Whoever it turned out to be, they should be equipped with hobnailed boots to see that people in government were not just sitting around, he said.

BT monopoly questioned

The committee is also urging the telecommunications regulator, Oftel, to adopt a more proactive role in enabling higher bandwidth services and free local-call access to the Internet for consumers.

"It's started rather late in addressing this issue of opening up the Internet to small businesses and the home user," chided Mr O'Neill.

"The BT monopoly should be subject to closer scrutiny. If technology enables the break-up of the monopoly and consumers can benefit from that, we feel there ought to be an opening up of the loop." This would allow other companies to offer services over the last mile of copper wire to homes and businesses.

E-commerce statistics needed

The committee's report on electronic commerce is a follow-up to one produced in May dealing with the proposed Bill and issues of electronic authentication and encryption.

The new report deals with wider issues and makes a number of other recommendations:

  • The Government Statistical Service should consider developing ways of compiling more accurate information on e-commerce.

  • Policy makers should not get carried away by the hype and exaggeration that has sometimes characterised the debate on the future of Online trade.

  • Social issues have perhaps been eclipsed by the concerns of industry and law enforcement. The government should not lose sight of the parts of society which may in some way be damaged by e-commerce.

  • Electronic government is not working. "The current plague of costly, late and untested electronic government projects must be tackled before the situation worsens," says the report.

"The government has invested a great deal of political capital in setting an optimistic agenda for this increasingly important area of economic activity," said Mr O'Neill.

"The Committee intends to monitor the still as yet yawning gap between ambition and achievement and will be returning to the subject of e-commerce in the forthcoming session."

The government has published its draft Electronic Commerce Bill since the report was approved by committee members in mid-July. Oftel last month proposed the ending of BT's monopoly over the local loop by July 2001. The e-envoy post was advertised last year but a high-calibre candidate has yet to be found.

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