US, EU still miles apart on global standards for the 'Net

The philosphical gap between the US and Europe on who should make Internet standards seems likely to be as wide today, when the Global Standards Conference concludes in Brussels, as it was before. Ira Magaziner, senior advisor to President Clinton, emphasised his commitment to 'interoperability over standardisation' warning that 'it is dangerous for governments to force the pace of standardisation.' But European Industry Commissioner Martin Bangemann argued that 'there is a clear cut interest of the consumer not to have a fragmented market. ... We do believe that the involvement of public authorities can help in standardisation.'

US and European differences over the responsibilities of the private sector and governments in promoting global standardisation of the Internet were highlighted at the opening of the "Global Standards Conference" which concludes today.

During a press conference Wednesday to mark the opening, Ira Magaziner, senior advisor to President Clinton, emphasised his commitment to "interoperability over standardisation" warning that "it is dangerous for governments to force the pace of standardisation."

In contrast, European Industry Commissioner Martin Bangemann argued that "there is a clear cut interest of the consumer not to have a fragmented market. ... We do believe that the involvement of public authorities can help in standardisation." He cited the example of a mandatory standard for digital decoders for pay television imposed by the Commission on industry as an example of where sometimes government action is necessary.

"The idea that government can force standards makes me nervous," Magaziner commented later.

The difference in positions could be important particularly in such a fast moving field as the converging information technology, audio-visual and telecommunications sectors, because any imposition of a standard that does not win the market's backing could cause havoc.

"When you force standardisation prematurely, you usually make the wrong choice; let the markets decide," Magaziner said.

The difference of emphasis between the US and the European Union reflects in part the different market situations. Standardisation in the EU still has a partially political role as a contribution to creating a single market for specific products, in order to avoid current situations for example where televisions and videos respecting French standards will not work in Belgium and the UK. In contrast the US has no need for this political dimension to standardisation.

The conference provides an international forum to assess the current state of play in standards-setting, and aims to explore ways that standardization can encourage the development of new markets, products and services, according to a Commission statement. The conference brings together political decision makers, industrialists and users from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised countries - US, Canada, Japan, U.K., France, Italy and Germany - as well as the other member states of the European Union.

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