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As the UK's overseas-owned semiconductor fabs keel over like dominoes the minister responsible, Peter Mandelson, has been heroically setting out his plans to make the UK a leader in electronic commerce. Making what is described as his first major speech since his appointment as secretary of state for trade and industry, Mandelson told an invited (and, we presume, paid) audience at the Wall Street Journal European Summit on Converging Technologies that the next four years would see a range of legislation providing a framework for the growth of electronic commerce. He appears to have neglected to tell the audience precisely (or indeed even approximately) what this legislation would consist of, but in point of fact there's very little that the UK can do independently of the EU and US - electronic commerce legislation globally will be driven by the major trading blocs, and although Mandelson will find himself with an input and some influence, he'll have to toe the line as and when the deals are cut. Encryption and taxation are major issues where there's divergence between Europe and the US. The US is still holding out forlornly on encryption export restrictions. The UK in April put forward proposals for legislation that included Trusted Third Parties (TTPs) holding keys, which is similar in concept to the US 'key escrow' idea, but this isn't likely to happen until it's clear the policy fits with EU, and probably US, policy. Taxation is more of a problem, as the (outgoing?) Clinton administration favours making the Internet a tax-free zone, while the EU (and no doubt Mandelson, when he checks the numbers) hasn't the slightest intention of letting all of that lovely Value Added Tax revenue go. Steering clear of these thorny issues, Mandelson instead concentrated on programmes to hook schools up to the Internet (these incidentally are currently being maimed by British Telecom dumping all the costs onto ISPs) and to increase businesses knowledge of IT. Dull stuff, basically. Meanwhile, dust gathers in the silent semi fabs, and the Great Man has some hard thinking to do about Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy Manchester United… ®

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