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Big talk, small hopes from dotcom summit

All mouth and no routers...

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Opinion Now that our political leaders have made their way back from the European Council meeting in Lisbon it's time to examine a little more closely why the dotcom summit wasn't the triumph it was cracked up to be. European leaders decided (or rubber-stamped really, because the European Commission essentially told them what to agree) that the EU should become "a knowledge-based economy". But the EU's track record for interfering in markets has not been exactly good - witness the common agricultural policy, with its subsidies for unwanted produce and interference with traditional food production, and a monetary policy that has caused the Euro to lose around 20 per cent of its value against the dollar. So could there be a bad outcome from an EU Internet policy? It depends on whether you believe in compulsory medication, for that's what our leaders have in mind. All mouth and no routers When the EC launched its eEurope programme last December, the grand objective was to speed the uptake of "digital technologies" in Europe, in the belief that this would help growth and employment. The invited public reaction on the Europa web site was minimal - there were less than 200 responses, but Brussels still plans that by the end of 2003, all school leavers should be Internet-literate when they leave school. That sounds like compulsory medication to us - and would all these digital game-playing experts, brought up on CD-ROM encyclopaedias, be ordinary-literate as well, we wondered. The EU heads of state - with a couple of exceptions - are not exactly shining examples of computer illiteracy. There's a story is circulating that Dutch prime minister Wim Kok once tried to use a mouse on the screen of his monitor, and Tony Blair hasn't yet obtained his Microsoft certification. The Commission also expects to accelerate e-commerce by proclaiming four directives and two regulations on intellectual property, legal aspects of e-commerce, e-money, and distance-selling of financial services. In addition, two directives will be modified to promote online procurement, with regulatory and complaint mechanisms being studied. A consultation document on the top-level eu domain name has also been prepared. The Commission seems to want to continue putting its own level of bureaucracy over the existing tiers, for example with health professionals and managers being able to link to a "telematic health infrastructure" by 2003. Emergency calls will have to be to 112, presumably on the theory that Greeks visiting Finland will more easily be able to summon emergency assistance. It has finally dawned on the Commission that it will have to take its own medicine and become the e-Commission, but its web sites do not give us much confidence of its prowess as a technology policy developer. It is also time that the EU realised that there are European web sites "in the most frequently visited rankings" other than European ISPs, but we are too modest to step forward. Internet II - again Other plans include a very-high speed European network for research use, which sounds rather like Euronet, the Commission's X.25 effort in the 1970s that turned out to be a way of increasing telecom tariffs by manipulating leased-line costs in favour of a public packet-switched network, with higher prices. So far as patents are concerned, the Council wants, by the end of next year, to be able to issue a European patent "as comprehensive in its scope as the protection granted by key competitors". This is worrying if it implies that bad US patent practice, for example regarding business processes, will be made easier in Europe. Perhaps the most foolish aspect of the Lisbon summit is the belief that EU policy towards the Internet could really make a significant difference to how things will develop in Europe. It sounds very much as though the EU's plans will mostly result in higher taxation, increased administration, and an inability to make any significant impact in the Internet world. The heads of state failed to get to grips with the pressing problems in Europe, such as corruption in the EU and the Commission, as well as the reform of its less successful policies. Instead, they preferred to act politically and bask in some afterglow from the Internet, which has prospered despite their actions, and would probably be better off without heir intervention. Not quite all was bad in Lisbon, for we were told that: "The European Council calls in particular on the Member States, together with the Commission, to work towards introducing greater competition in local access networks before the end of 2000 and unbundling the local loop in order to help bring about a substantial reduction in the costs of using the Internet." But is this a date for a plan or a date for action, we wondered. ®

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