Calling technology "the engine of tomorrow's economy," President Clinton outlined a series of electronic-commerce initiatives Monday designed to strengthen consumer protections online, encourage the deployment of high-speed connections, and help developing countries link to the Internet.
The initiatives were outlined in conjunction with the release of the government's "first annual" report on electronic commerce, which the White House said now accounts for 27 million purchases a day and is expected to reach more than $300 billion in annual sales within a few years.
But despite the ambitious aims of the White House initiatives, the plans skimmed over key details and depends to a large extent on industry self-regulation, prompting some critics to greet the proposals with skepticism.
"While it's substantial progress, it's really a lot less than what businesses or consumers need," said Bill Whyman, an Internet analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.
The centerpiece of the plan calls for greater cooperation among government agencies and online businesses to develop safeguards against Internet fraud. "People should get what they pay for online," Clinton said. "It should be easy to get redress if they don't."
To achieve this, White House officials said they plan to prod the industry to adopt a series of self-regulatory measures. These include the creation of a common seal that consumers can look for from companies that have pledged to treat consumers fairly, respond quickly to complaints and agree to arbitration or audits by an outside organization.
The proposal mirrors the administration's approach earlier this year to the problem of protecting consumers' privacy online. Critics say both initiatives depend too heavily on industry self-regulation, and leave individual consumers with little recourse.
"In the privacy and consumer areas, self-regulation has not worked very well," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based civil liberties group. "People still have considerable concerns about privacy."
White House officials said self-regulatory measures are still backed by federal laws, which apply in cyberspace just as they would in local shopping malls. But they also said that because the Internet is a global marketplace, governments are limited in their ability to protect consumers.
"We're saying to consumers that no government agency can police the whole Internet for you," senior policy advisor Ira Magaziner said. "But we're giving consumers the tools to protect themselves."
Clinton outlined several other initiatives, including a plan to promote the Internet and electronic commerce in developing countries through pilot projects that take advantage of low-orbit satellites.
The scope of the effort has not been determined, but Magaziner said private funding and perhaps loans from the World Bank could fund the deployment of remote medical diagnostic centers and other technologies in developing countries.
To alleviate slow Internet access times he likened to a "dirt road," Clinton said the Federal Communications Commission will encourage telephone and cable companies to build high-speed data connections to houses across the U.S. The agency is considering a plan that would allow the Baby Bell local telephone companies and GTE Corp. to build high-speed networks through separate affiliates.
Times wire services were used in compiling this report.