European governments are being urged to reject the temptation to overregulate the Internet and to take a light-handed legislative approach so that its growth isn't tripped up by bureaucratic red tape.
Government and communication industry officials issued the warnings here, as ministers from the European Union's 15 member states, along with representatives of the United States, Japan, Central European countries and Canada, opened a meeting on realising the potential of the Internet.
The German Ministry of Economics and the European Commission are jointly sponsoring the two-day conference, which the organisers say will conclude with a declaration of common principles on Internet issues such as liability, privacy and encryption.
European governments should "break the regulatory cycle that has tracked each new electronic medium in this century," George Vrandenburg III, senior vice president of America Online , told delegates. "Internet growth will be driven by those who use and build it, and government will have and should have a lesser role in the shaping of this medium than any in history."
Vrandenburg added that governments must be confident that they can permit the development of the Internet "with a light hand" without abdicating their public responsibilities.
Other speakers noted that Europe already lags the United States in the per capita use of the Internet, and that the new technology is not yet affordable. Overregulation would only worsen the situation, they said.
Much of the development of multimedia so far in Europe has taken place without far-reaching regulations, said Thomas Middelhoff, a member of the board of directors of Bertelsmann AG.
"If Europe wants to be on the same footing, it needs the same regulations as in the United States," Middelhoff said. "In areas where there has to be regulation, it has to be uniform across governments."
Middelhoff also said Germany's new multimedia law, set to take effect Aug. 1 was a good start.
The law clarifies that Internet service providers are responsible for content they produce, but it also says they must take action to block content produced by other parties if they "have knowledge of such content and blocking its use is both technically possible and can be reasonably expected."
A draft of the declaration expected to be approved by delegates tomorrow includes an imprint of the German multimedia law, said Christopher Kuner, an American lawyer based in Frankfurt who has closely followed the German law.
The draft, which has not yet been made public, includes an option to adopt the German language on the question of liability, Kuner said. But it's not clear whether delegates will accept that language, he said.
Kuner also said the declaration, in its preliminary form, uses vague language and doesn't put forth anything concrete for the regulation of the Internet by European governments.
One point on which opinions diverge is whether the Internet should be regulated in the context of existing laws governing mass media, or whether entirely new laws applying solely to the Internet should be drafted.
Government representatives who addressed the assembly tended to echo a statement by Martin Bangemann, European Industry Commissioner, who said existing principles and laws transfer to the Internet.
"We don't have to write a new constitution just because there's a new medium," Bangemann said.
But Middelhoff and other industry representatives said the same laws that apply to other forms of communication such as radio and television could not be used to regulate the Internet.
In hosting the conference, Germany has an opportunity to show that it is "relatively far ahead" in clarifying regulatory issues regarding the Internet, said Günter Rexrodt, German Minister of Economics.
Rexrodt also said Germany wants to play an active role in ensuring that EU countries are united in preventing "wild growth" of legislation by the various individual European governments.