United Nations Addresses Global E-Commerce

Officials urge cooperation between private, public sectors

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At the United Nations on Tuesday, government officials and business executives called for heightened cooperation in creating technology infrastructure and international laws that encourage the rise of e-commerce.

Speaking at the Global E-commerce 2002 conference here, Bob F. Jalang'o, U.N. ambassador for Kenya and chairman of the U.N. ECOSOC Working Group on Informatics, said the public and private sectors must step up collaboration in online commerce. If not, the goals set two years ago at the organization's Millennium Summit--designed to bridge much of the so-called digital divide by 2015--won't be met in time.

Ivan Simonovic, president of the U.N. ECOSOC and U.N. ambassador for Croatia, said "glaring inequalities" are restraining the development of global e-commerce, including the fact that only 6 percent of the world's population has Internet access. The situation of "digital illiteracy" is widening, he said at the two-day conference.

But former U.S. presidential candidate and publishing executive Steve Forbes predicted that the high-tech setback is only temporary. "These kinds of ups and downs in technology are normal. The current environment is just a detour," he said.

Representatives from the government and corporate worlds could help get things back on track by focusing on broad economic policies not specific to technology, Forbes said. These include policies that improve property laws and funding mechanisms that encourage entrepreneurial behavior worldwide, help stabilize foreign currencies, reform taxation and reduce trade barriers.

Stephen Mendonca, vice president for e-government strategy and solutions at Compaq Computer, said government agencies and private-sector companies have much to learn from each other. For one thing, government organizations of all sorts must start thinking more about return on investment and less about simply dictating and enforcing regulations, he said.

"We are talking about strategic innovation for the public sector," Mendonca said. An overriding objective should be providing "value for service," he noted.

As an example, Mendonca cited a project embraced by Chicago's emergency services department. By automating and updating the city's 911 service, Chicago reduced the transit time for emergency calls by up to 25 percent. And on the federal level, the U.S. Postal Service has rethought its Web site: Instead of simply providing stamps online, the agency now serves as the Internet arm for millions of small businesses.

One concern for global e-commerce raised at the conference was security, for digital and physical assets. Technology alone can't be expected to solve the problem, said Douglas Batt, vice president and general counsel at Concord Communications, an infrastructure management software vendor in Concord, Mass. "If people don't trust the security of the process, it simply won't work," he said.

In response to a question, Batt added: "Human beings are probably the weakest link, as far as security goes."

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