Government's e-commerce strategy under attack

The government is in for some heavy criticism over its e-commerce strategy when a select committee report is published tomorrow.

The all-party select committee report is expected to criticise the government's two year delay introducing an e-commerce bill. The bill has attracted as much controversy and criticism as the man originally responsible for pushing it through -- the former Trade and Industry secretary Peter Mandelson.

While Mandelson and Blair have sung the praises of e-commerce and digital government, the controversial bill has been delayed and changed. Key escrow -- which would have forced companies to store encryption keys with a third party -- was dropped after complaints from privacy groups and businesses who were worried it would hobble e-commerce in the UK. The position of the e-commerce Czar -- announced last November as the person that would promote UK e-commerce -- has yet to be filled, a situation the DTI blamed on the crisis in Kosovo. "It was always going to be a prime ministerial appointment and the PM has been preoccupied with a war in recent months. A lot of things have been put on hold," a spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman was unwilling to comment on the report but claimed the bill will soon be a reality. "There was a consultation period when the alternatives were carefully considered. We are still deciding on timing but a bill will be introduced within a month," she promised.

Chris D-Arcy, a Fellow at computer firm Bull believes the government was keener to appease the Home Office and the police than working for the benefit of UK businesses. "It is not a well though out bill," he said. "The government has confused encryption with taking steps to encourage businesses to trade electronically. They were also trying to please the security services, who have a bee in their bonnet about strong encryption laws," he added.

D-Arcy is also sceptical about key escrow being dropped from the final bill. "They said they would drop it only if the industry could come up with an alternative," he said. D-Arcy's main concern is that with key escrow still a possibility, UK businesses will look abroad for e-commerce plans. The possibility of off-shore e-commerce will be a reality if some countries offer better conditions for businesses than the UK. "There is no need for e-commerce to be local. My worry is that it will create a world where there are havens for e-commerce."

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