BISSEX: I Commerce, You Commerce, E-Commerce

The Net has given new life, or the appearance thereof, to lots of ordinary activities. Making small talk with strangers is reborn as "chat." Writing, illustration, and photography are now "content creation." And buying and selling have become "e-commerce."For consumers, e-commerce can be as simple as typing a credit card number into a form on an online store's Web page. Just another way to buy things, an alternative to be weighed against calling an 800-number or driving to the mall. For businesses, though, it can feel much more critical. Companies are getting told that if they aren't doing e-commerce, they're headed for the boneyard. It's businesses' hopes and fears that are driving the e-commerce hype these days.Much of the instigation is coming from parties who have something to gain from the proliferation of e-commerce itself. IBM, for instance, which has positioned itself as a leader in e-commerce "solutions," has a web site full of strategic imperatives for would-be e-merchants. Their pages of mind-numbing marketing verbiage ("identify key drivers of differentiation and a value proposition for selling online") are an attempt at dressing up what is really a rather simple goal: get people to buy stuff from your web site -- but do it using our software tools, for which you will pay dearly!The undercurrent of urgency, the suggestion that you must grab your customers' credit cards before your competitor does, gives the attentive observer deja vu. It recalls the frenzy that rippled through the business world when websites became a must-have corporate item. Companies poured millions of dollars into creating web "presence." Then, in each case, inevitably someone would ask, "Is this making us any money?" The answer in most cases was no (albeit delivered with considerable mumbling about increased visibility and "brand awareness"). During this period, the only people really making money off the Web were the people selling and servicing the dream: consultants, web designers, and Internet service providers.The relative success of ad banners proved that money could be made outside the web development arena, that people were willing to pay for content with their attention, much like they do (or advertisers hope they do) when watching television. The whole e-commerce game hinges on how many are willing to pay in harder currency.Not every e-commerce project is about retail sales or consumer perception. Many firms just want to streamline the business they do with other companies. Equifax, a big name in the credit-reporting business, recently announced that with technology help from IBM it will begin issuing digital identity certificates that will help companies make secure transactions with one another over the wires. Given that most other commercial uses of the Net (automated exchange of data and banking, to name two) were pioneered in the business-to-business realm rather than the consumer market, it seems likely that Equifax's venture and others like it will generate more momentum than a cartful of fledgling shopping efforts.Companies like IBM and Equifax are not the only ones maneuvering to gain from e-commerce. At the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva, President Clinton helped push through a "Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce" which, among other things, effectively declares a moratorium on taxing "electronic transmissions" until the next WTO meeting in 1999. This does not make physical goods tax-exempt when ordered online, but it does apply to all products delivered digitally -- downloaded commercial software, for instance. Government will forego some tax revenue in the short term, but hopes to be rewarded by economic growth. Given the disproportionate concentration of both software production and online vending in the US, it's plain that this will boost the high-tech sector of the US economy. But is this any good for the rest of the world, or is it just a power grab? Thailand-based think tank Focus on the Global South, in their report on the WTO gathering, quoted an ambassador from Pakistan as saying, "We ask if such an issue should be parachuted into the WTO at short notice without full consideration of all its aspects... We don't know if it is compatible with our laws."I don't have an answer for the gentleman from Pakistan, except a hunch that as long as everybody else is smelling money they're not going to spend a lot of time worrying over the law books. The question of how the burgeoning online marketplace will grow into the global economy is a big one, but those who stand to gain the most don't seem to be worrying a lot about whether it might widen the global gap between rich and poor.For now, e-commerce is of relatively little consequence compared to most other factors in the global economy. Let's hope that as it grows, some critical analysis grows along with it.If you want to follow the WTO's exploits yourself, check out their website (www.wto.org). To explore Focus on the Global South's perspective in more depth, visit their site (www.focusweb.org). If you just want to spend money online, there's an overwhelming profusion of shops at StoreStearch (www.storesearch.com).Is your money flowing through the wires, or does e-commerce make you nervous? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.e-scribe.com/cyberia).

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