NetChoice: Fighting for E-Consumers

If the first era of e-commerce was all about survival of the fittest, with all participants operating independently and competing for market share, the new era of online selling may have more to do with collaboration.

For a number of reasons, it is time for e-tailers, click-and-mortar entities and related professional associations to join forces to enable e-commerce to reach its full potential.

Enter NetChoice, the recently established lobbying group that was formed to ward off legislative action that threatens fair competition for online vendors.

Chances are that in the years to come, the organization will establish itself as the chief lobbying group for New Economy businesses. Every major or minor victory it can claim might go that much further in establishing online businesses as formidable competitors in the international marketplace.

Strange Netfellows

How interesting to see a membership list that includes such disparate entities as the venerable online retailer eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY), and the newest kid on the block, Orbitz.

Joined by the activist muscle within the Electronic Retailers Association and the Electronic Commerce Association, the 20 founding members of NetChoice have their work cut out for them.

In the months to come, it would be encouraging to see some other heavyweight names take their place on the list. An intact, undivided Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) would go far toward establishing the association’s credibility. A monster-size e-tailer such as (Nasdaq: AMZN) would likely cause the membership list to swell.

E-tailers such as Kmart-backed, that appeal to the mass middle-American audience, would certainly add clout to lobbying efforts.

Defining the Issues

First on the NetChoice list of priorities should be defining which issues are critical to the organization’s mission of “maximizing the ability of consumers around the globe to acquire goods and services through the Internet at the best possible values.”

It is a simple enough concept, but far from simple to achieve.

Further into its mission statement, the organization makes an important statement of how it intends to achieve its goals. NetChoice says it will lobby for “the free market to function, so that consumer choice, not legal or regulatory structures, will determine ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in global e-commerce.”

Clearly the most immediate battle has everything to do with the issue of taxing e-commerce. NetChoice may have arrived just in time, since the so-called moratorium on e-taxes expires in October.

Congress is suffering a great divide on e-taxes, and some members are under-informed on the issues.

Need for Speed

Some of the issues NetChoice must confront are not as well-publicized. Some are related to competition, while others are based in technology.

For example, while there are legislators making it their business to state their positions on e-taxes, few are talking about fast-access Internet services.

By the end of last year, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, only about 9 percent of American homes had broadband access. In a culture driven by instant gratification and speed, this single issue threatens to stall or at least delay the growth of e-commerce.

Since government and telecommunications industry leaders are not aggressively approaching this issue, NetChoice needs to make it a top priority.

Ground Zero

The issues will only multiply as time goes by. NetChoice says it will stay true to its commitment to fight governmental regulation that could interfere with the growth of e-commerce. However, in order for the e-commerce industry as a whole to fight, it has to unite. Currently, most e-tailers are still stuck in their isolationist mode.

On one hand, e-tailers identify themselves as a part of the overall e-commerce industry, ostensibly allying themselves with others doing business online. At the same time, due to an increasingly sluggish economy and a dot-com shakeout that does not appear to be over yet, individual e-tailers are fighting tooth and nail with each other just to stay alive.

Staying viable in the commercial landscape is going to have to be a collective effort. Banding together to fight governmental interference and stringent regulatory legislation is Step 1.

Down The Road

There will probably always be a primary issue on which NetChoice needs to focus. But there will also always be a host of ancillary issues that require attention.

How, for example, will NetChoice deal with the issue of file-sharing, a la Napster?

Will NetChoice state a position on how to deal with online fraud, and if so, will it step outside of its own stated mission statement and actually encourage more stringent laws and punishment for perpetrators?

What about online gambling? Few e-commerce issues have generated such strong feelings on both sides. Will NetChoice stay true to its objective to enable consumers to decide what they want online, rather than legislators?

NetChoice, if well-organized and consistently vigilant, has the potential to shape the e-commerce industry.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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