Clinton Directs Government To Evaluate E-Commerce Laws

While the U.S. Congress is away from Capitol Hill for the holidays and pending electronic commerce bills wait at bay, the Clinton Administration has launched a federal, state and local government initiative to evaluate which current laws are e-commerce friendly and which need some tweaking.

The participants will look for laws and other regulations that impose barriers to the growth of electronic commerce and recommend ways to revise them. Each federal agency, including independent regulatory agencies, will be asked to identify any laws or regulations that may hold back e-commerce’s expansion.

State and local regulators have been asked to do the same, and the representatives of all three levels of government will then discuss ways to address common barriers in a consistent manner, the President’s memo said.

Public Comment And Protection

By the end of January, the working group is directed to issue an invitation for public comment on not only which laws are getting in the way, but also which of those laws should be put at the top of the action list. By creating a priority list, the working group will try to address the most pressing issues that are “currently inhibiting electronic commerce that is otherwise ready to take place.”

In keeping with the administration’s dual themes of promoting e-commerce and, at the same time, promoting consumer protection online, the working group is also directed to request public comment on how governments should adapt public interest regulations to the electronic environment.

“These recommendations should discuss ways to ensure that public interest protections for online transactions will be equivalent to that now provided for offline transactions,” the memo says. In addition, the group will seek public comment on questions of technology neutrality and cross-border transactions.

The new e-commerce initiative specifically identifies the use of paper documents as one area that governments should tackle. “By requiring in person transactions or paper documents, or by imposing licensing requirements or specific technical standards, these laws may have the unintended consequence of preventing some categories of transactions from taking place online,” the administration said.

Laws requiring long-term retention of paper records, for example, cost companies money to store the documents and make searching for information on those documents difficult.

Federal agencies are already looking for ways to use computers instead of paper for many of their communications and transactions, under the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. These efforts do not necessarily mean, however, that paper will go the way of the horse carriage, the administration said. Employees working with hazardous machinery, for example, will be better served by a warning posted near the equipment than by an online safety warning.

Politicking Along The Way

Clinton is attempting to funnel credit for the initiative in the direction of Vice President Al Gore to further bolster his image as a reliable advocate of the Internet and technology. Gore is locked in an unexpectedly tight race with former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Vice President Gore has worked hard to promote electronic commerce and build consumer confidence in the online marketplace,” the White House announcement of the e-commerce initiative said. “Together with the President, he has supported private sector leadership and industry self-regulation whenever possible, but has fought for new laws in some areas such as children’s privacy.”

The White House statement came surprisingly close to again trying to credit Gore with the invention of the Internet, an inexplicable claim the Vice President first made several years ago and was ridiculed for in both political and technology circles.

In announcing the new review of laws and regulations, the White House said, “When the President first asked the Vice President to oversee the administration’s efforts in communications and technology, the Internet was only a tool for a few researchers and scientists. Now more than 100 million people around the world use the Internet to stay in touch with distant friends and family, research important topics, follow the news, or explore new places.”

Some of the laws likely to be identified through this new inquiry are already under scrutiny in Congress, where more than a dozen bills were introduced this year to address various e-commerce-related issues. Most notably, the use of electronic signatures as a legally binding way to sign a contract or seal a business transaction online is on the verge of becoming law.

Widespread Industry Support

Many leading Internet-related companies were swift in voicing their unanimous support of the Clinton initiative. The business group known as the Electronic Commerce and Consumer Protection Group immediately thanked the White House for its vote of confidence for the rapid development of e-commerce.

Included in the group are AOL, American Express, AT&T, Dell, IBM, Microsoft, Time Warner, Inc. and Visa U.S.A., Inc.

The group is currently working on the development of guidelines for best practices for Web merchants. All of its efforts have been geared toward increasing consumer online safety and confidence in e-commerce.

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