E-commerce needs a new hero

If the UK's e-commerce minister wants to avoid being next year's Internet Villain, he should start emulating his predecessor's good work
Written by Leader , Contributor

Stephen Timms, former e-commerce Minister and closet tech geek, left his post in the DTI five months ago, but it was still heartening to see him remembered and recognised at the ISPA awards on Thursday night for injecting some tech nous into this key government position.

Timms did not get everything right -- he arguably made a mess of the UK anti-spam laws by failing to protect businesses -- but he was generally a champion for the UK tech industry. He pushed through the legalisation of Wi-Fi networks in the UK, and played an important role behind the scenes in working with BT to make Broadband Britain a reality.

For his troubles, Timms received the coveted Internet Hero award at the ISPAs. We miss him already, as his replacement -- Mike O'Brien MP -- has made little impact thus far. If O'Brien is looking for ideas, he could start by fixing the holes in Timms' anti-spam laws and apply pressure on the US to do take action against companies such as MCI.

O'Brien could also lock horns with BT. Many operators are concerned that BT is creating a new monopoly for itself through its 21st Century Network. The government must keep an eagle eye on this, to make sure BT plays fair and uses true open standards (and by that we do not necessarily mean open source) at all levels of the network. With ADSL coverage now reaching 95 percent, this is also the time for mature debate on whether broadband should become a universal service available to all -- regardless of their location or the condition of their phone line.

The DTI as a whole needs to take more of a lead in the fight against online fraud, particularly phishing. Phishing will only get worse as banks continue to battle their own inertia, and other e-commerce operations (or their customers at least) will also become increasingly affected. We don’t need universal ID cards, but we do need a nudge towards something more sophisticated than passwords. In Scandinavian countries, banks commonly use tokens to create single-use passwords. It’s really not that hard.

There's no argument that O'Brien has a huge brief to master -- covering energy and sustainable development as well as e-commerce. But if O'Brien wants a crack at the Internet Hero crown, he needs to raise his game and prove himself a worthy successor to Timms. Otherwise, come the 2006 ISPAs he could be in the running for the Internet Villain award.

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