Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

EUROPE: Light touch on the web

EUROPE: Light touch on the web

Europe's liberalisers are gaining the edge in the debate over e- commerce regulation, writes Deborah Hargreaves

Europe has been agonising for ages over how to regulate the freewheeling environment of the internet. But the outline of an agreement is beginning to emerge, and it is in favour of a light regulatory touch.

The debate has exposed fundamental differences between member states. But one sign of the direction in which opinion is moving comes today when ministers will try to agree the electronic commerce directive, an important piece of legislation prepared by the European Commission.

Britain, Ireland and France have been pressing for a set of common standards, rather than draconian legislation that could stifle the growth of e-commerce; now other countries, including Germany, are coming round to the same view. Germany, together with Austria and the Netherlands, had previously wanted to extend its domestic commercial legislation to e-commerce. This approach would have meant that in Germany, for example, some promotional offers would be banned from web sites under its unfair competition laws.

Forcing companies to comply with the rules of each and every member country would make a "nonsense" of the directive, says Patricia Hewitt, the UK minister responsible for e-commerce.

"It is immensely important that we get agreement if possible," she says. "There is a big prize to be won and that is a single market in e-commerce. That prize is within our grasp."