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Business to set government's e-biz role, Maxwell says

Elliot Maxwell, the Clinton administration's point man on the digital economy, says business must take the lead in limiting the government's presence in e-commerce.

SAN FRANCISCO--Elliot Maxwell, the Clinton administration's new e-commerce czar, today said the government will inevitably play a role in Net-based business, but it's up to business itself to determine how big that role will be.

"What industry does is the most important determinant of the future," Maxwell said. "They have the opportunity to shape the rules, to shape the environment."

Speaking at the Hambrecht and Quist technology conference in San Francisco, Maxwell outlined 16 areas where the government will play a role in e-commerce. In addition to bandwidth and consumer protection, they include privacy, taxation, and opening global markets.

But Maxwell said that despite the attempts of some Internet advocates to portray the government's role in black and white, government involvement is not a "binary" issue.

Many aspects of the speech seemed reiterate the administration's policy of self-regulation, a tact that increasingly led privacy advocates, at the least, to conclude that the United States is falling behind in this key component of e-commerce, a situation that may soon lead to commercial difficulties with the European Union. (See related story)

The government has already played a role in bandwidth issues and in offline concerns like consumer protection that have online implications, Maxwell observed.

He encouraged Internet companies to get involved in discussions on leading e-commerce issues and take steps to influence gestating policy. "If you don't look at the issues then others will use the policy process to handicap you," Maxwell said.

"[The] Policy process abhors a vacuum," he said.

Net businesses can do more than be involved in the policy-making process, Maxwell added. By tackling issues like privacy themselves, industry might be able to head off regulation altogether. Maxwell praised self-regulation efforts like TRUSTe and the Better Business Bureau Online that encourage companies to put their privacy statements online, but said more needs to be done.

"It shouldn't be a situation where 99 percent do it and 1 percent don't and we say that's OK," he said.

The incentive for business to devise its own solutions to policy issues like privacy is that those solutions are likely be more effective, efficient, and flexible, Maxwell said. Another incentive is that people are already asking Congress and the administration to step in and set up new rules.

"It's not a questions of the administration threatening people [with regulation]" Maxwell said. "It's a question of people having strong views on this."

Maxwell encouraged people in the industry to give him feedback. Citing two of the government's e-commerce-related Web sites, ecommerce.gov and digitaleconomy.gov, Maxwell noted that his email address is linked from the sites and encouraged people to use it.

"We want to know if we are doing the right things," he said. "We want to know what we should be doing."

The special advisor to the Secretary of Commerce for the digital economy, Maxwell succeeded longtime Clinton advisor Ira Magaziner as the administration's point man on digital commerce in November.