Huge transnational groups, holding sway over large chunks of the global media and communications markets, tentacular electronic commerce companies, and other Internet-based businesses with worldwide ramifications – these were among the examples cited by panellists addressing the question of how to protect and empower the citizen vis-à-vis the Internet.
Recalling that the OECD had approved a set of guidelines for consumer protection in December 1999, panel moderator Jytte Olgaard of Denmark said the key now was to move from words and recommendations to action, and ensure that business and market forces respected the guidelines. Phillip Jennings, general-secretary of the recently-formed Union Network International – "a 50-million strong global union for a global economy" – said unions needed to go online, to develop "online solidarity and be ready to zap the wap". With the communications and information sector experiencing huge "transnational mergers of newsbiz and showbiz", Internet-related technology operations presented a picture of global diffusion and global anarchy. Public authorities needed to play an active role because social equity considerations were of great importance. As a pointer to future trends, he cited the global agreement reached recently by UNI and the Telefonica company. With around 3 billion people in the world (about half the global population) living on less than $2 a day, equity problems needed to be tackled urgently.
Philippe Lemoine, co-chairman of the French Galeries Lafayette retail group, drew attention to some of the paradoxes in relation to issues of citizen empowerment. In an age of tremendous change, social and political adaptation was lagging far behind the technology, talk of a new society was accompanied by little knowledge of what it meant, and even the notion of citizen today was not always clearly perceived. Information technology had shifted the centre of gravity of our world from production, to management, and the to trade and communication. Even economists were unsure how to measure it. European parliamentarian Erika Mann, from Germany, looked at the political dimension, noting that Internet had no respect for frontiers. But authorities could not acquiesce to that and needed to grapple with difficult questions like privacy laws, and the clear delineation of consumers' rights. Internet was a global phenomenon, creating a new reality, and transforming the business and political environment. She agreed with a question put by a participant that the very low electoral turnouts recorded in recent years in Europe were a worrying trend, which contrasted sharply with the cyberspace explosion.
Based on a speech at Forum 2000, Paris, June 2000
©OECD Observer July 2000