Electronic Commerce Bill, 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to contribute again to this debate. I commenced my contribution on the previous occasion during which brief time I outlined the detail and purpose of the Bill. It is essentially enabling legislation and is the first to deal with electronic commerce, so it will pave the way for the future. I see it as the first in a long line of legislation dealing with electronic commerce.

When I last contributed to this debate, the most topical item in the news regarding the information technology industry was what was called the "Love Bug", which originated somewhere in the Far East and had been sent by e-mail to many computers throughout the world from Asia to Europe to America. It created severe problems and caused some stock exchanges and many financial institutions and organisations to experience severe difficulties. It is a warning for the future regarding the security required when dealing with electronic commerce. We have until now been casual. If people are to regard the computer as a way of doing business, it should be remembered that, in running a shop, office or factory, all the proper measures should be taken for the physical security of their cash, assets and premises and to ensure people cannot gain unauthorised entry to the premises.

People need to take the same approach when dealing with their computer systems. It is important that proper security systems are put in place. We will see more scares along the lines of the "Love Bug" until we realise not just the value of e-commerce but the important measures we must take to ensure it is run in a proper and secure manner. We must bear in mind the security aspect, and that was one of key concerns expressed in a detailed survey conducted by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland and published in its recent report a few weeks ago. The issue of security was the greatest single barrier to the developing of e-commerce and that has been highlighted by many members of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland. I will return to the details of that survey if I have time to do so.

There will be a greater difficulty regarding the issue of domain names which companies and organisations use, be they dot.ie, dot.com or whatever, and it will require legislation not just on a national but also on a worldwide basis. We will need formal legal conventions between countries regarding domain names to deal with it. There have been many highly publicised incidents of cyber squatting and it has become a fashionable business recently. An international bureau which deals with the registration of domain names voluntarily achieved agreement from some people involved to relinquish their title to domain names for a short period to give the genuine owners the right over a six week period to obtain their domain names for a modest fee and have them formally placed on the worldwide web. I hope many people will avail of that.

However, that will not be sufficient. Let us take the example of the growth of the telephone network in the past three decades. In the beginning, the telephone exchange was in the local post office. We then progressed to larger exchanges and beyond that to international calls. After a while, we had to add extra digits to telephone numbers. Most of us in rural areas had our local code and a four digit number but most areas now have a seven digit phone number. When something similar is replicated through the worldwide web, there will be a continual requirement for changes in domain names and I see that as a source of problems which has not yet been properly addressed by the worldwide information technology community. There will be ongoing difficulties and competition in the registration of domain names, so it is an issue which will have to be addressed.

I would like to see online government develop from this legislation and I am sure it will happen in due course. The Revenue Commissioners have the most sophisticated computers in the country. PAYE and PRSI payments can be made online on a monthly basis by companies to the Revenue Commissioners. P60s and P35s can be dealt with in the same way at the end of the tax year. I understand Revenue will be progressing this year to the point where it will be possible to log, record and pay VAT returns through the online government system.

I would like to see this extended to many more Departments and agencies other than the Revenue Commissioners. The Land Registry has until now been an antiquated operation, although I know legislative proposals are before the House to which I hope we will return in the autumn. I hope when, under that legislation, it is established as a semi-State organisation and removed from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it will initiate an online procedure whereby people will be able, through their home computers, to check directly into the Land Registry office and see their folios, reference numbers and maps instead of having to go through the existing long and protracted procedures.

As regards local authorities, I would like to see a situation whereby people on a housing list can check from their homes where they are on the housing list and the points they have achieved. Above all, people who have lodged planning applications will be able to check from their homes the date the information was received, when the decision is due and they will know the up to date situation. All of this will require a cultural change but we are slowly moving in that direction and we will eventually get there.

The same should apply to health boards. We are all aware of the long waiting lists for procedures in hospitals, appointments with local consultants or ENT or out-patient appointments. A great amount of time and effort, phone calls, letters and correspondence are involved in getting people up to date and time is wasted in the system due to cancelled appointments. If all that could be on-line it would be far more efficient.

That brings us back to this House and the Minister's Department. I would like to see e-business developed through An Post and the local post office network. There is a big issue to be dealt with through the small local post offices. One needs a volume of customers to justify the capital investment in these cases which we must recognise but I believe that if there is e-business to be transacted and they can obtain a licence for the dog, car or whatever, that is that way forward.

I conclude by referring once again to the survey conducted by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland where they are fully supportive of the move towards e-commerce but they highlight the problem of security as a basic concern. This will have to be addressed by the worldwide community in the years ahead.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ó Caoláin.

The contribution of each Member with the agreement of the House should not exceed 20 minutes.

This Bill is positive and will provide a useful framework for the regulatory environment in which to do business electronically in the future. However, we should not make the mistake of assuming that simply because we enact this legislation we are well on our way to becoming a global e-business hub. The Government is far too complacent in its attitude to the information society and slowly but surely the advances we have made in recent years are being eroded by lack of decisiveness and ambition in this area. On the website of the Department of Public Enterprise, there is a little promoted e-commerce forum. Of the last two registered comments one from 23 February reads:

From what the Government has being doing in the last 12 months, does anyone believe that the wave of e-commerce is still as big as ever or have we failed to capitalise on the advantages that were so evident this time last year? Have we let others catch up even though it was one of the first times we were ahead?

Our competitors have clearly been catching up. Last Friday week, the National Competitiveness Council published its annual report and its findings relating to telecommunications and e-business are particularly alarming. The report states in chapter seven that when compared to our competitors, Internet usage in Ireland remains low, Internet access costs are high and there is a strong need for greater competition in the telecom market.

Page 21 of the report lists Ireland's most disimproved indicators on last year's report. High among them are those relating to e-business and telecommunications. On page 49 the report bluntly points out:

In the absence of decisive action in these areas, Ireland risks not only the loss of an opportunity to establish a meaningful foothold in the competitive global electronic marketplace, but more seriously, we allow Ireland to become uncompetitive and therefore, unattractive, for enterprise attempting to compete on the evermore ICT-driven world market.

I accept that the telecommunications companies also have a significant role to play in ensuring our increased competitiveness. In particular, I urge them to prioritise reducing the cost to business and the consumer of going online. For example, The Teligen Report in February of this year places Ireland at thirteenth of the 28 Western nations in terms of the cost of 30 minutes of Internet access. To incentivise people to use the Web, there is no better way than to bring costs down. However, the Minister also has a responsibility to ensure that the consumer benefits from lower prices as a result of competition. She also has a duty to provide leadership in terms of encouraging businesses to be able to do business on the web. In that regard, I suggest that this Bill could best be complemented by the following measures.

These is a collection of measures I have taken from various articles and journals I have read in the past four or five weeks. The first measure that would help is a strengthening of the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation. Second, a clear commitment and timeframe for the full unbundling of the local loop. We have been lobbied extensively abut this recently by Esat – Deputy Yates referred to it in his contribution. Third, the continued promotion of employer led e-business training programmes. Fourth, the appointment of an e-envoy and the establishment of an e-business trust council. Fifth, a commitment that business and the consumer can carry out all necessary transactions with Government, local and national, by the end of next year and the prioritisation of investment in the regional broadband network as set out under the national development plan.

The Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulations operates in a complex and, at times, difficult environment. The regulator's powers are limited. These must be strengthened, for example, so that the regulator has the power to ensure that telecommunications companies publish and meet clear service level agreements. The ODTR must be able to impose effective sanctions on companies that fail to meet their commitments to their consumers. The ODTR has given a commitment to the partial unbundling of the local loop. This must go further and the Minister has the power to ensure that this happens. I call on her to set a date for the full unbundling of the local loop so that real competition in the provision of local telephony can take place. I understand that Deputy Yates will put down an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage.

The European Commission has recommended that this be done by the end of the year. Will the Minister give a commitment that this will happen in Ireland this year? The programme for Prosperity and Fairness, on page 123, calls for "a continuing focus on awareness campaigns and e-Commerce Infrastructure initiatives to build on recent progress". It specifically mentions the PRISM project developed by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland. This project has already trained and assisted 400 owner-managers in the development of their Internet business strategy. It has also introduced about 3,500 SMEs to doing business on the web. The success of this project according to independent evaluators is due to the fact that it is employer led with businesses and local business organisations showing other businesses the potential of e-commerce. This is one very effective model on which the Government could build, but it must do so quickly. Businesses in other countries are adapting to the potential of new technology much more quickly than in Ireland and we need to catch up. An example of a startling statistic is that there are seven times as many Internet hostsper capita in Finland as there are in Ireland. Even in Britain there are twice as many per capita.

We need someone to champion Ireland's case to be a global e-business hub with that focus alone, someone to say we are doing well in some areas but we need to improve in others. As the Minister will be aware, there is such an office in Britain and it is working effectively. Consideration should also be given to the establishment of an e-business trust council with the function of ensuring that Ireland's small and medium sized businesses are confident in doing business online and are protected against fraud on the web. It should be a partnership between business, Government, consumer groups and drawing on the expertise of the information and communications technology specialists.

I understand this case was made to the Minister by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland and others when she launched its ChamberSeal trust device in February and said it was an excellent idea. No doubt she will take it on board. In terms of both the office e-envoy and the trust council, it would be an excellent idea for sections of this Bill to deal with their creation.

Governments must lead by example and I call on this Government to ensure that in its interaction with business and citizens generally all activity can be carried out electronically by the end of 2001. This month the British Government stated that it believed this should be happening in Britain by 2005. I do not believe such a deadline is sufficiently ambitious for Ireland. Australia has set the deadline as the end of next year. I appeal to the Minister to set the deadline for the end of 2001.

The challenge for the Government is to meet such a target and to ensure that in December 2001, every business and citizen will be able to, among other activities, file and inspect planning applications, register and tax vehicles, as Deputy Fleming said, pay taxes, file company returns, pay fees and fines and make reports of complaints to the Garda and all agencies, whether health or environmental, online. This is something which the nation must have.

Next year is a census year and I see no reason that citizens cannot make their census return on-line. The speed with which governmental bodies adopt new technology sends out a strong message to businesses and citizens generally. Many of Ireland's smallest firms still seem to believe they can live without a personal computer and an Internet connection. The sooner they see the convenience, efficiency and advantages of going on-line, the more competitive they will be. All interaction with Government should be capable of being carried out electronically. The technology is there to achieve it and all that is needed is vision to deliver.

While we can have a great legislative and regulatory environment for doing e-business, unless Internet take up in Ireland is greater and the necessary broadband infrastructure is in place, we will never become a global e-business hub. In that light, it is absolutely essential that there is a rapid roll out of the broadband network and that the investment plan in ICT infrastructure, under the national development plan, is prioritised. E-business will remove the issue of geographical location from trade but that will only happen when it is possible for every area in Ireland to link into the broadband network.

The Minister needs to assure us that rural Ireland will not be neglected and perhaps she could look at the Swedish Government's 6 million plan to ensure that every business and household in Sweden, no matter how remote, is connected to its national network. The e-commerce Bill is just one step on this road. If the Minister fails to move quickly, Ireland will be stuck forever in the information boreen rather than the information superhighway. It is important we move rapidly at this stage. The report from which I was going to quote shows quite clearly that we have fallen behind considerably even in the past year.

I welcome this Bill. It is a very important step forward which will facilitate the growth and development of electronic commerce in Ireland. It contains provisions to give legal standing to electronic signatures and electronic contracts. I was glad to be one of the few Oireachtas Members to attend the first signing by electronic means of an international trade agreement signed here in Dublin by the Taoiseach and the US President. It was an event which confirmed that Ireland is at the forefront of e-commerce. This Bill reflects that reality and develops the law accordingly.

Without doubt, the unprecedented upturn in the Irish economy in recent years has been fuelled by new technology and new industries. Many people have benefited but the sad reality also is that, in many respects, the advances have served to emphasise regional and social divisions. The jobs and spin-offs have grown disproportionately in the greater Dublin area and the east coast. The Border, the midlands and the west have yet to see the full benefits of these advances. Few people in the Border region, in particular, have enjoyed the miracle of e-commerce in terms of jobs and economic development. If all regions are to benefit from the technological development which this Bill recognises, then the Government must concentrate greater efforts on the advancement of the disadvantaged regions.

The Government's national development plan aims to increase the potential of the BMW region to act as a counter balance to the south and east region, especially Dublin, and to pursue a more balanced growth within the region. The plan speaks also of the need to develop gateways, key centres which are the focus of development for a region, and points out that the notable feature of such gateways is that all but one, Galway, are in the south and east regions. Clearly, there is a crying need to develop centres such as Monaghan town and Cavan town as gateways for growth and development for the Border region.

The national development plan promises £120 million to promote investment in advanced telecommunications in areas where it is clear the market will not deliver sufficient investment and to support the acceleration of the information society and e-commerce. The investment is being provided in the regional programmes with two thirds of it in the BMW regional operational programme. These commitments must not only be kept but efforts must be made increased to ensure the Border counties are allowed to benefit to the full from technological advances and attendant economic growth.

Inextricably linked with the need for development in the Border region is the need for cross-Border co-operation. A recent study on North-South co-operation on e-commerce and related matters initiated by the Department of Public Enterprise has identified significant gaps in the infrastructure in the Border area. The study states that the limited level of broadband access is not in line with best practice internationally. These gaps need to be filled and the plans to update and upgrade the infrastructure must be advanced. I asked the Minister if she would be good enough to clarify the current position applying in counties Cavan and Monaghan and the plans and deadlines for upgrading the telecommunications infrastructure in those Border counties. I look forward to a positive and encouraging response.

The report to which I referred, prepared by the Department of Public Enterprise, recognises in relation to the telecommunications regulatory framework, as does the e-commerce Bill prepared by this Government and similar legislation promised by the British, that there are no legislative barriers to the development of North-South e-commerce.

Chairman, who am I addressing?

Acting Chairman

An-tAire is not with us at the moment.

I will proceed. We have been repeatedly told that the huge advances in technology mean that regional differences and regional disadvantages should no longer count as business will be online and commercial enterprises will be free to access national and world markets. The reality is, however, that regional imbalances persist. The national development plan recognises the disadvantage suffered by the Border region in terms of communication infrastructure. The study on North-South e-commerce which I cited recognises the great untapped potential of cross-Border co-operation and the need to create a truly all-Ireland network.

I take the opportunity of welcoming this Bill to urge action from the Minister and the Government on these issues so that all sections of society and all regions can reap the benefits of the technological advances which have transformed the Irish economy. I hope my points have not been lost in the course of my delivery.

Acting Chairman

Deputies McGuinness and Moloney are sharing time.

I compliment the Minister on introducing a Bill which will give Ireland a competitive advantage over its European competitors, in particular Britain, in attracting e-commerce companies to locate in Ireland. This is excellent legislation, which provides a comprehensive legal framework for e-commerce and deserves, and I hope will receive, all-party support.

E-commerce represents a fundamental revolution not only in the way business is conducted but in the way in which citizens interact with the State and each other. Forester Research predicts that by 2003 17% of all world trade will be conducted electronically. E-commerce already has a fundamental effect on many industry sectors which are of major importance to the economy. Ireland is the largest exporter of software in the world and many software firms rent out their applications using application service providers or distribute their products over the Internet rather than sending out CDs. Most major PC manufacturers sell their computers direct to the customer using the Internet. Dell currently sells between $4 and $8 million dollars worth of computers a day from its servers in Bray. Soon Irish taxpayers will be able to file and pay their taxes online using Revenue Service Online, a development which will be more convenient for the taxpayer and which will in time save money for the State.

E-commerce represents a huge opportunity for Ireland both to attract e-commerce companies into Ireland and to enable Irish companies to use the Internet to sell products and services to a global market, and to improve their own competitiveness by using e-commerce to cut costs. If Ireland is to seize this opportunity we need a full legal framework that gives businesses the same confidence doing business online which they currently enjoy off line. This legislation provides such a legal framework.

Other countries in Europe are also attempting to attract e-commerce companies, most notably the UK where the Government has the stated policy objective of creating the best environment for e-commerce to flourish. The UK is a serious competitor for Ireland. It has a good telecommunications infrastructure, is English speaking and has a large domestic Internet market with more than 25% of its population online. This Bill, however, will give us a competitive advantage over the UK, as it is plainly designed to encourage e-commerce rather than to serve any other agenda. This can be seen, in particular, in the contrast between the provisions of this legislation governing the use of encryption technology and the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill or RIP Bill.

The Irish legislation requires that the Minister or a member of the police may make an application to the District Court and if the judge considers that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that evidence relating to an offence under the Bill will be found, the suspect may be required to decrypt it and make it available in "intelligible form" while failure to do so is an offence. By contrast in the UK various agencies serve notice requiring decryption without obtaining warrants through the courts for the prevention or detection of crime or if the decryption is in the economic interests of the UK. The fear is that so many Government officials will have the power to serve notices that users will have no confidence in the confidentiality of their communications.

Critics have complained that the RIP Bill infringes on the European Convention on Human Rights and data protection laws by compromising the ability of an individual to ensure his own privacy and security. A leading UK information technology recently stated:

As debates about the powers given to law enforcement authorities to access public keys and electronic surveillance continue in the UK there is a concern that the UK approach will reduce confidence in e-commerce and possibly slow its adoption. Unless the UK Government moves quickly, before long companies will be attracted to the more open Irish environment.

Passing the legislation will be of little value if we do not let the world know about it. I urge the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Public Enterprise to undertake a joint trade mission to the US to inform e-commerce companies thinking of investing in Europe that Ireland is the place to locate and that Irish politicians understand the needs of the e-commerce industry and are able to legislate to provide companies with a supportive legal environment. The next 18 months will be crucial, as many major US companies decide their investment strategy for Europe. Time is not on our side and the Government must act with Internet speed if we are to secure this vital investment.

Legislation, however, is only one building block in the structure to support e-commerce. More urgent action is needed if we are to truly seize the opportunities it offers. Other countries are investing heavily in ensuring that they are well prepared for the future challenges. The Swedish Government, for example, has used tax incentives to encourage people to purchase PCs, as a result of which one in every two Swedish households has a PC. It is committed to providing every household in Sweden with high speed Internet access at a cost of six billion euros. As a result of these initiatives Sweden is regarded as the leading country in the use of IT, and Swedish e-commerce companies, such as Boxman.com and letsbuyit.com, are moving successfully into other parts of Europe.

The greatest challenge facing Ireland is not attracting foreign companies but persuading Irish companies to adopt and use e-commerce. In particular, the challenge is to persuade SMEs to adopt and move in regard to ICT developments. The infrastructure is in place. Government policy supports such companies and I encourage them to participate fully. I propose a series of concrete actions which I believe the Government should undertake as a matter of urgency to address this challenge. The Government must practise what it preaches and use e-commerce to provide services to business and citizens. The use, for example, of e-procurement by local authorities alone would create an online market worth £2 billion and would attract numerous small businesses online eager to sell their goods and services to Government.

It should encourage the setting up of Irish online industry virtual markets, such as World of Fruit, and Allplastix, to serve the European market. The Government must do all in its power to encourage competition in the telecommunications market, including the immediate unbundling of the local loop, while constant access for SMEs to the Internet is absolutely essential, as is the case in Canada. SMEs need training not just in how to use e-commerce but in how to use IT in general. The Government should establish an SME education portal to deliver online training to SMEs at reasonable rates. This could be done in conjunction with a third level institution and the trade associations.

Internet penetration in Ireland stands at 22% while it stands at more than 51% in Sweden. We should set a target of having the highest Internet penetration rate in Europe by the end of this year and consider using tax incentives and grants to get the majority of Irish people online. It needs to be ensured that all students leave school with a good knowledge of IT. Teachers with a good knowledge of IT are needed. I propose that every student studying in our teacher training colleges should be given a laptop for the duration of the course and IT should become an integral part of every teacher's education. A diploma course in technical support should also be established to ensure that every school employs an individual who has more advanced technical knowledge.

I also believe that we, in this House, have a role to play in advancing the debate on e-commerce. The European Parliament has set up anad hoc all-party committee to look at the impact of e-commerce and the Internet. We should do the same here to ensure that we are at all times on top of the issues. It could be used as a forum to meet industry experts and trade groups, such as the Irish Internet Association. Many issues, such as privacy data protection, will come before the House, which Members will need to understand and be prepared to debate. Establishing an ad hoc committee would be a useful first step in encouraging well informed debate and strengthening Ireland's efforts to become the European e-commerce hub.

I compliment the Minister and her officials on their recent initiative to bring Irish policy to the bureaucrats at the EU to impress on them Ireland's commitment to e-commerce. They made a huge impact and have been recognised as officials keenly interested in the development of e-commerce and the new economy. They gained the respect of Europe. The Minister is clearly committed to the project and enacting this Bill will be one of the first steps in positioning Ireland at the cutting edge of e-commerce development within the EU. I commend the Minister and her officials.

I thank my colleague, Deputy McGuinness, for sharing his time. I compliment the Minister on introducing a Bill which seeks to regulate a most complex activity. She has formulated admirable legislation arising from extensive consultation over a period of months and taking into account international laws and protocols while ensuring that vital national interests and strategies are protected. The Minister deserves the heartiest congratulations for introducing such a forward looking Bill.

On Second Stage she likened the Internet to a juggernaut. A bullet train might be a more appropriate metaphor. So many things are happening that it is important for people from rural communities to recognise the value of e-commerce and Internet changes. We see the huge value of them and from our participation in rural groups and local authorities we see the huge value and the importance of the Bill being passed by the House as quickly as possible.

The Internet has developed in many different, diverse ways over recent years. Some said it would kill the conventional postal system. The reverse has happened. It has created enormous opportunities for postal and delivery services, which is very important for rural areas. Others predicted that computers and technology would eliminate the need for us to work. The evidence suggests the opposite. Thank God there are no shortages of jobs in this country.

Only two years ago we heard at public meetings throughout the regions about how difficult it was for those wishing to trade on the Internet to gain access to electronic banking facilities. Today the banks are predicting huge increases in the volume of Internet businesses. One bank has predicted that the number of customers with Internet access will increase from 10,000 to more than 100,00 within a year. There is also a huge drive to secure e-business. Sadly, this is coupled with the closure of rural bank branches, which affects local communities, especially the elderly. I welcome last week's debate on "Morning Ireland", where the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, emphasised to the banks the importance of rethinking this policy.

The Government has played a key role in promoting strategies which have ensured the development of the pharmaceutical, telecommunications, teleservices and software industries, which are integral to the unprecedented economic growth of recent years. It is also worth recognising the Government's commitment to education to ensure that a dynamic work force is available to these industries.

We are now world leaders in software sales and, thankfully, the Government has been implementing policies which we can stand over and which will ensure that we are at the forefront of the information age revolution. This Bill will help to ensure that we maintain this position. Many speakers have referred to this.

The Internet is the fastest growing network in history. In the 1920s there were just 75,000 telephones connected in the world. The current annual connection rate for telephones is 75 million and this is growing. Hundreds of millions of new users are connecting to the Internet on an annual basis. Not long ago most Deputies would have been absorbed in helping their constituents get a telephone connected. Today those same constituents can avail of up to four services, offering telephones, cable television and Internet access. These are now set to expand substantially over the coming years.

It is also worth recognising that we are enjoying the benefits of a booming economy, but we need to maintain our position as leaders and promoters of the e-commerce revolution. E-commerce allows a small, peripheral country like Ireland to lead this revolution. The Bill allows the industry to develop and flourish without undue interference from the Government.

I welcome the Minster's statement that the Bill is not just for the business community. This is very important, especially for rural Deputies. There is an inherent recognition that it will take time to bring everybody into the net and to facilitate those who have not had access to computer training. While it is not the Minister's direct responsibility, I urge her and the Minister for Education and Science to continue efforts to ensure that school children have access to computers. While great strides have been made in recent years, more needs to be done to ensure that all schools have a sufficient number of computers to allow pupils gain access to information technology. This should be coupled with the provision of access for those of the adult population who have not had any information technology training. Perhaps FÁS, in conjunction with the vocational education committees, could have an expanded role here.

We all recognise that teleworking is becoming a feature of working life in Ireland. Only this week, the Stock Exchange, which for many years was a place where stock brokers did business in a civilised manner around a circle, went electronic. The building is to close forever. Many rural Deputies would welcome a similar change in the Dáil. It would mean we could work from home and would not have to make regular journeys to Dublin. That is for the future.

As a rural person I recognise the benefits to rural life from what is happening. Developments in e-commerce can, and are, bringing tangible benefits to rural communities. They are allowing people to work in new and less stressful ways, such as reducing the need to commute to work. They are also ensuring that lights are kept on in homes day and night, keeping people in their communities and keeping communities alive.

Legislation that endeavours to make it easier for individuals and companies to trade electronically will ensure that rural Ireland will stay alive and prosper. The information age is one of the few developments in the past few centuries that may stem the rush to the cities and promote locally based development. Distance and location are not barriers in the world of e-commerce.

I recognise that the Minister engaged in extensive consultation on the Bill. This is evident from its content and from the response to it – the Bill has been universally welcomed. The Minister was charitable in her remarks about the British Minster for e-commerce, Patricia Hewett, when she said a similar Bill in Britain had become overlain with bureaucracy. I understand there is deep unease within the UK business community with the British legislation. Many businesses have already moved their e-commerce operations to other countries, thankfully including Ireland.

The Bill before the House is different. It has been welcomed by the business community at large. It is an enabling and facilitating Bill. It does not seek to add extra burdens on businesses wishing to engage in e-commerce, rather it seeks to facilitate them in their work. The Bill is good for business and consumers. It is another example of the no-nonsense approach we have come to expect from the Minister.

The Minister has rightly recognised that it is futile to attempt to over regulate for something that is constantly evolving. The rate of change in information technology is far too great to do so effectively. While we as legislators must plan for the future, we should not allow legislation to stand in the way of progress. The Minister has wisely taken the approach that technology innovations will arise and may need amending legislation. Instead of peering endlessly into a crystal ball, she has taken the pragmatic approach of dealing with the problems technology may present. For example, only three years ago President Clinton signed electronically with the Taoiseach an important electronic protocol. We have seen since then important developments in the area of encoding and secure transactions.

We will not assist consumers or businesses if we do not respond rapidly to the changes brought about by technology. We need to be able to adapt to such developments quickly and efficiently to ensure that e-commerce can thrive without unnecessary legal impediments. There are consumer checks and balances in the Bill, but it must be remembered that legislation cannot replace the need for the buyer to be wary at all times. E-commerce needs the buyer to be especially vigilant.

There are many other important provisions in the Bill, such as allowing for parallel paper and electronic systems to operate, especially within Departments. Many people, young and old, still wish to conduct their business with pen and paper. Now is not the time to make e-commerce mandatory. I am sure many Deputies would not replace letters by e-mails, etc.

I commend the Minister. We have attended many meetings on the value of maintaining rural life. This is the first time there is a positive response to that need. The fact that rural groups, through the Leader Programme, enterprise boards and local authorities, recognise the importance of e-commerce and that they have an equally important role to play in it as those living in cities, allows for the first time an opportunity to recognise the potential of their input. We should do everything we can to facilitate that. Only last week, when canvassing in the by-election in south County Tipperary, we encountered some people who are involved in rural post offices. They recognised the Minister's commitment to ensuring that as many rural post offices as possible are updated with modern technology. I congratulate her on this and encourage her to take further measures in this area.

I compliment Deputy McGuinness on his excellent speech. I urge the Minister and her officials to take note of the points he made and see them implemented. He put a great deal of research into it. I welcome this important legislation and I compliment the Minister on introducing it so swiftly. However, the Bill will be worthless unless some of the fundamental problems in the telecommunications sector are tackled. One of these problems relates to ISDN lines or high speed access to the Internet. ISDN involves a high speed, dual channel, digital line which makes downloading information from the Internet much quicker and improves access to e-mail. It saves time and money. It will be fundamentally important to small and medium sized enterprises if they are to participate in e-commerce.

The Eircom Internet site promotes the use of ISDN high speed lines. It mentions how much quicker it makes downloading information and browsing. However, if one is in the unfortunate position of wanting an ISDN line installed, the service is not high speed. It is more akin to a snail's pace. Many of the complaints I have received in relation to ISDN lines, and I have experience of it myself, relate to the slowness involved in the installation of lines. It can take up to three months in some cases. There are also ongoing difficulties after the system is installed and delays in terms of Eircom resolving problems. In some cases, delays can be as long as six months.

Another issue is cost because Eircom continues to charge for the old line and the old handsets even if one has upgraded the handsets. Unless one rings Eircom and informs it that the line has been removed and the handsets changed, it will continue to charge for them. The public should be conscious of that and the procedures within Eircom. It is a pity that many of the old semi-State practices have not changed since it became a public company. If e-commerce is to develop, it is crucial that this mentality in Eircom is broken and the only way that will happen is through competition.

I agree with the Deputy.

I received an e-mail from the chamber of commerce in Wicklow. Some of its members applied for ISDN lines at the end of last year but they were told there would be a minimum of a three month wait because Eircom had to invest in additional equipment to increase capacity. We are talking about promoting e-commerce but businesses are being told that they must wait three months before Eircom can even consider installing an ISDN line. This is unacceptable.

ISDN is approximately four times faster than using modems on existing PSTN lines. The new technology, which is ADSL, is approximately 20 to 40 times faster than using a modem on an existing line. Eircom said recently that this technology should be up and running within two years. However, some other companies have stated that they can have the system in operation within six months. This will not be the case throughout the country, but it would be a positive step.

If one wants to upgrade a line to ISDN, one gets two 64 kilobyte channels, one for voice and the other for the Internet, over the existing line. However, the problem is that Eircom has a stranglehold on existing lines because the local loop has not been unbundled. If competition is to be introduced in the sector and e-commerce is to be promoted, it is fundamentally important that the local loop is opened up. This would break Eircom's stranglehold on this area and ISDN lines at present. It is providing a poor service to small and medium sized enterprises. This is why many such enterprises are afraid of the Internet and of taking the e-commerce route. If a business must wait four or five months without Internet access, it will not be encouraged and it will not solve any problems for Eircom. The unbundling of the local loop must take place to ensure competition, to provide a new range of services, to reduce costs and to encourage e-commerce.

Debate adjourned.