New Laws Aim for Net Profit; BUSINESS & MANAGEMENT

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Byline: ANDREW MOODY

A DRIVE to encourage British companies to lead the world in trading on the Internet will be launched by the government next month.

The campaign will target small and medium businesses in an effort to encourage them to take advantage of the multibillion pound e-commerce market.

New laws to make trading on the Internet more secure will be outlined in the Queen's Speech next month. Firms will also be sent information about the potential of the electronic market.

The move is being spearheaded by Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson, who believes UK businesses are already well placed to take an international lead in e-commerce.

Small Firms Minister Barbara Roche, a key player in the initiative, told Financial Mail that businesses cannot afford to underestimate the impact of e-commerce.

'We stand on the threshold of a revolution in the way we do business,' she says. 'Business and government must work together to help build consumer confidence to take advantage of the benefits.' Roche aims to pave the way for an international legal framework for trading electronically at the ministerial conference of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Ottawa this Friday.

She wants countries to sign an agreement to protect intellectual property rights across borders.

Ministers have already held talks with the World International Property Organisation in Geneva.

A big surprise, however, is that the government wants to legislate on e-commerce issues in the UK.

It is believed that the new laws will be wide-ranging and they are likely to enable electronic signatures - unique data files used in the acceptance of contracts on the Internet - to have the same legal force as signed paper documents.

It is hoped that this will give firms the necessary confidence to start trading on the Internet.

The government's move was welcomed by the Federation of Small Businesses.

Spokesman Stephen Alambritis says: 'Many small businesses are worried about trading on the Internet because they do not have confidence that their contracts have any legal force or that goods and services they buy will appear.

'New laws might make them feel more secure and realise the huge potential.

It is only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace for even business such as a small butcher's in Hartlepool to have a customer base in Australia.' Department of Trade and Industry research shows that UK businesses are more prepared for e-commerce than companies in the US and Japan, with 81% of UK firms aware of the importance of Internet trading compared with 79% in Japan and 77% in the US.

Only German companies fared better on 86%.

Confidence Analysts expect e-commerce to take off when television and PC technologies converge over the next few years. …