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E-commerce panel wrestles with minutiae

The committee charged with shaping Internet tax policy spends its first day arguing over procedure.

WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia--Given the time it spent on its first day wrangling over housekeeping items, it looks like the committee charged with shaping a federal Net tax policy has a long, tortuous road ahead.

The Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, composed of state, federal, and local government officials, as well as several leaders of high technology companies, bogged down on everything from dates and locations for future meetings to how to raise funds for the committee's budget.

The only decision that sailed easily through was the unanimous election of Virginia Gov. James Gilmore as chairman of the committee.

The 19-member congressional advisory panel is charged with examining the effects that taxes, tariffs, and bureaucracy have on the budding e-commerce sector. The panel is expected to issue its final report to Congress by April 21, 2000.

After a lengthy discussion on the size of the budget for the committee as well as the source of the funds, the group finally formed a subcommittee to explore the issue. The subcommittee will include Gilmore and AT&T chief executive Michael Armstrong, among others.

The subcommittee will study how the panel can raise the funds for its $1.5 million to $1.7 million budget. While it is clear that some of the companies represented on the panel, including America Online, AT&T, and MCI Worldcom, could easily foot the bill, the committee wants to avoid the perception that certain industries are trying to buy access or influence.

"If 50 percent of the funds came from AT&T and 50 percent from MCI--you know we're going to match whatever (Armstrong gave), it probably wouldn't look too good to other industries and no less the government," said John Sidgmore, vice chairman of MCI Worldcom.

Still, the group said that all donations will be limited in size and all donors will be clearly disclosed on the committee's Web site to avoid any misperceptions.

The first substantive discussion about the impact of taxation will take place tomorrow at the College of William & Mary in Williamburg, Virginia, with presentations from Andrew Pincus, the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce and MCI Worldcom's Sidgmore. Both speakers are members of the committee.

There will also be non-committee members presenting, including academics Walter Hellerstein of the University of Georgia School of Law and Austen Goolsbee of the University of Chicago School of Business.

Future meetings will likely be held September 14 and 15 in New York city; December 14 and 15 in Silicon Valley; and March 20 and 21 in Austin, Texas. Not only the dates, but the locations were called into question by some committee members.

Gilmore wryly said he tried to hold the meetings in "high tech hubs" but saw now that members were more concerned about having them in convenient "transportation hubs." Much the frustration stemmed from the current meeting being held in the historic town of Williamsburg, Virginia--a place rich in history but considered far from the beaten path.