US Report: US to spur third-world e-commerce

An initiative to spur e-commerce in developing nations, spearheaded by the US State Department, will grow out of an existing program to help African nations get online, according to a State Department official.

Under the program, outlined in Monday's First Annual Report of the U.S. Government Working Group on Electronic Commerce (the follow-up to last year's sweeping Clinton administration e-commerce report) Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will lead the charge to promote open information policies among governments of developing nations.

"Fostering information policy reforms will help create a more competitive market for Internet services," said Frank Jenista, public affairs adviser at the State Department's Economy and Business Bureau, in an interview. The ultimate goal is to keep the developing world from being left behind in the global economic boom that e-commerce is expected to create over the next several years, he explained.

Eight developing countries are to be chosen by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to take part in the program, Jenista said. An exact budget and time frame for the program has not yet been set, he added. The agencies are now in the midst of a five-year, $20m (£12m) program to connect African countries to the Internet. Based upon their experience in the African program, State Department officials have concluded that a combination of government and private financing for small-scale Internet infrastructure investments in developing nations can promote policy reforms and make more extensive private investments possible, he said. "The Internet allows these countries to leapfrog whole stages of development. They're going from no phones to cellular phones, and you've got satellite-based Internet communications where you have no electricity," Jenista said.

The U.S. is seeking financial contributions from foreign governments, private companies, the World Bank and the United Nations to help get the program off the ground, he said. In order to attract the funding, U.S. officials will emphasise the importance to the global economy of bringing as many nations online as possible, as quickly as possible, Jenista said. "In the developing world as in the United States, a vigorous private sector has the talent and resources to bring the benefits of the information revolution to consumers," according to the Working Group's report. "However, experience shows that in many developing countries, private sector action alone may not achieve widespread access to these benefits without policy reform and some initial public investment."

The 30-page report, which represents the final project for White House technology czar Ira Magaziner before he resigns later this year, also details the Clinton administration's achievements in technology policy since the 1997 report. It also calls for minimising government regulation of the Internet access industry and calls on the Federal Trade Commission to aggressively pursue online scam artists. "Self-regulation in the digital age will require the private sector to engage in much greater collective action to set and enforce rules than was characteristic of the Industrial Age. These rules should operate globally, requiring heightened international co-operation among companies and between industry and advocacy groups," according to the report.

"The U.S. government remains convinced that these new forms of international co-ordination represent the most effective way to create a seamless global marketplace and still address problems which may arise in the digital age."

Among the report's other findings:

  • Growth in the information technology industry represented 34.6 percent of the nation's real economic growth between 1995 and 1997.

  • During the first decade of the next century, over a billion people will use the Internet worldwide.

  • Four companies -- General Electric Co., Cisco Systems, Intel Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. -- were responsible for more than $3bn (1.8bn) in Internet commerce last year.

  • Those four companies could exceed $35 billion in online transactions by 2000

Later today, you can take part in an interactive online vote for the UK's own Net Czar - announced by Peter Mandelson last week.

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