Electronic Commerce Bill, 2000: Second Stage.

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

I thank Members for allowing me to usher in this Bill in the Seanad. I listened with great interest to the Order of the Business and the robust defence offered by the Leader of the House, Senator Cassidy, in respect of the number of Bills introduced in the Seanad. About a fortnight ago we had a most wonderful debate on public transport which I very much enjoyed. This is a very good forum in which to introduce legislation and this Bill in particular which I am very pleased to introduce.

In matters such as e-commerce, the Internet and information technology, the pace of change is huge. This is bewildering and perplexing. One can hear about a company today and by tomor row it could have joined with a new company and developed a new product or software. There is constant evolution.

Undoubtedly, a company which does not use e-mail and other new technology in this technological age will be left behind. Some people in small and medium businesses are wary when they think about the expense and entering uncharted waters. One tells them that they must move with new technology because there is no such thing as the Scarlet O'Hara syndrome, that they can think about it tomorrow. There is no tomorrow for them. In their case tomorrow will be yesterday and they will be gone. I know most Members of the House are convinced on this matter but it is worth repeating.

There were three huge Internet gatherings in Dublin yesterday. Several hundred people attended one such gathering in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in the morning to hear how growing businesses could get finance for the Internet. In the afternoon there was an Enterprise Ireland conference on how funds could be made available to small and medium businesses and, in particular, for Internet and related technologies and last night people attended the COMS 2000 exhibition in the RDS. Despite what is happening, strange as it may seem, and in spite of the "hype", there is still a reluctance on the part of many smaller firms to move into this area. At a later stage, I hope to talk a little on Global Crossing and what is happening in that regard.

We must ensure that a social divide does not emerge. While this is a Bill to do with business and which is brief, brisk, supple and understandable with regard to the Internet and e-commerce, we must ensure a social divide will not develop between a new elite of those with technological skills, equipment and know how and those without it who find themselves outside a new Pale, so to speak.

The Electronic Commerce Bill, 2000, is landmark legislation. Everyone is aware of the huge impact the information revolution has on almost every aspect of our lives. We did not have an industrial revolution in the 1800s because we were too busy having a revolution over land or one of physical force. This is a revolution in which we should all participate. The convergence of computer, multimedia and telecommunications technologies has made the communication of information in all its forms quicker, cheaper and more powerful than ever before. I can think of a handful of inventions in the past which have had a profound effect and impact on the way we live our lives. Examples of those would be the steam engine, electricity, the telegraph and, as we will recall from our history books, the pioneers. Although I taught history, I cannot bring the dates to mind. Despite its short existence, the Internet is already seen as a technology of equal, if not greater, import to humankind.

It is hard to think of an aspect of our everyday lives which will not be affected by the Internet and the information revolution. As with most new technologies it is the business community which has been to the forefront. Most commentators are predicting that business-to-business e-commerce will surpass consumer orientated e–

commerce in its impact on our economy. The Internet's impact goes way beyond the commercial world. It has huge potential benefits for how we learn, how we are entertained, shop and communicate, both locally and globally. The Internet, like the telephone, will impact on all of our social and economic interactions.

These benefits will not necessarily be achieved automatically. A number of years ago the Government recognised the need to take a pioneering role by formulating a comprehensive set of policies to stimulate and promote the information society in Ireland. I pay tribute to the former Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton, whose Government established the Information Society Commission towards the end of 1996. It is under its aegis that a lot of what we do operates. That was an important forward step.

This Bill is part of an integrated series of Government policies and initiatives aimed at strategically positioning Ireland to become the most e-commerce friendly country in Europe. The various elements of this policy are outlined in the Government's action plan for the information society, published by the Taoiseach in January 1999. There are various strands to the plan. These strands focus on key areas such as telecommunications infrastructure, encouraging electronic commerce, electronic government and other enabling measures. The action plan also recognises the importance of legislative and regulatory measures to facilitate the development of the information society. It commits the Government to legislate in order to facilitate electronic transactions.

When trying to legislate for the Internet we can learn a lot from the anarchist origins of the network. The phenomenal growth of the Internet can be attributed in large part to these origins – freedom, openness, absence of borders. The last thing the Internet needs at this early stage of its development is the heavy hand of Government regulation. As the Internet grows it begins to mirror society more – more commerce, legal cases and battles to control various sectors. The challenge for Government is to strike the right balance between the various forces of control, Government regulation, self-regulation by industry, the free market and technological progress. This Bill strikes the correct balance by acknowledging that what is needed at present is light regulation to oil the cogs of e-commerce and not throw a spanner in the works.

The Internet is a profoundly different way of doing business and has raised many questions about the interpretation and implementation of current legislation. Most of our laws were written purely with the paper world in mind. While the principles and objectives of our laws apply equally to the on-line and off-line world, the interpretation of these laws in the on-line world can cause confusion. This Bill represents a swift response by the Government to many of the most important issues raised by electronic commerce. It is a first step in adapting our Statute Book to take account of the realities of the Internet.

It would be impossible and undesirable to introduce an entirely new set of laws for e-commerce. There is no reason the huge body of legislation that currently governs traditional commerce should not apply equally to e-commerce. Company law, consumer law and privacy law already lay down principles for the governing of these areas, whether off-line or on-line. This Bill is intended simply to remove existing legal impediments and uncertainties regarding the development of e-commerce in Ireland. It will allow consumers and business alike to be free to use electronic communications to satisfy existing legal requirements which already apply to paper-based commerce. In this way the legislation is not intended to introduce an entirely new legal framework, but rather is intended to be enabling legislation.

A radically different approach to formulating legislation is required to address the issues raised by the Internet. One aspect of this new approach is closer consultation during the legislative process. Public policy relating to the Internet or anything else cannot be formulated behind closed doors. It cannot be isolationist. It has to be based on a shared effort of all concerned. Private sector innovation has a definite role to play.

It might be helpful to the House if I sketch briefly the background leading to the introduction of this Bill. We have consulted widely and publicly from the beginning. The original consultation paper published in August 1999 was drafted during a series of workshops and focus groups organised by my Department. Those groups included representatives from industry and other interest groups. The consultation process proved successful and submissions were received from many different businesses, organisations and individuals. Over 30 written submissions were received on the consultation paper and I take this opportunity to thank everyone who did so. An Internet discussion forum was also made available. This innovation was enthusiastically taken up by the on-line community and a lively debate ensued within the discussion forum. I see this as a model for future consultations in the legislative area.

The Bill is about positioning Ireland as a progressive, pioneering e-commerce regulatory environment. It is founded on two basic principles – functional equivalence of electronic media and technology neutrality. Functional equivalence means that communications using electronic means should not be treated any differently under the law than communications using traditional media. Technology neutrality is important because it would be inappropriate for legislation to endorse one technology solution over another and, given the extraordinary pace of technological developments in this area, it would be foolhardy to lay down detailed technical specifications which would more than likely be obsolete before the Bill is enacted. We must remember the Internet year is three months and getting shorter.

The Bill is also founded on the principle that Internet users should have free and open access to whatever level of security technologies with which they feel comfortable. By its nature the Internet is an open and therefore unsecure network. Technological solutions exist to allow commercial transactions to be carried out with confidence and to ensure that privacy is preserved. Most of these solutions are based on some form of cryptography and it is essential that Internet users have easy access to strong cryptography. This policy is enshrined and underpinned by this legislation.

In general the submissions were supportive of the on-line legislative proposals and they provided some good comments. In particular, the proposal to create a comprehensive e-commerce legal framework in one piece of legislation was widely welcomed. The media, particularly the newspapers which have specialist writers on e–

commerce, were part of the consultative process as they provided an important information tool. They frequently published information about the Bill and who had been consulted so that interested parties could read it.

This led to an interesting debate as comparisons were made between the UK and Ireland. I do not normally engage in such a debate but many specialist writers in the newspapers clearly stated that the Irish Bill is better than the UK Bill. I met the UK Minister, Patricia Hewitt, when she was here a month or six weeks ago. Her Bill was going into the House of Lords having been in the House of Commons. It started as simple legislation but it became bogged down and overwhelmed by what could or might happen. The result is that the Bill is cumbersome, costly and unadaptable. We hope this legislation will be the opposite. At a recent seminar in Brussels most commentators praised the Irish Bill as adopting the right approach to this issue.

Section 1 contains the Short Title and provides for the commencement of the Bill once enacted. Section 2 contains the definition of a number of terms subsequently used in the legislation. The definitions are designed to be comprehensive, technology neutral and, as far as is possible, future proof. I am not sure that anything can be future proof. How can one proof oneself against the future? Many of the definitions come directly from the electronic signature directive.

Sections 3 to 8 are fairly standard legislative provisions which do not have to be explained in much detail but I will refer to a few points. Section 6 deals with the prosecution of offences and provides that summary proceedings may be brought for an offence within 12 months of the discovery of evidence of the offence. Section 8 outlines the penalties for offences. It is important for engendering confidence and trust in e-commerce that the penalties provided are adequate to meet the crime. A number of submissions during the consultation process suggested that the maximum proposed fine of £80,000 should be increased substantially. In response to this view, the Bill provides for fines of up to £500,000 for indictable offences.

Part II of the Bill contains the key ground breaking provision providing for equivalence between the electronic and paper worlds. Section 9 lays down the fundamental principle on which the Bill is founded, namely, that information in electronic form shall not be denied legal effect, validity or enforceability solely on the grounds that it is in electronic form. Information incorporated by reference is also covered by this fundamental principle. This provision is important for e-commerce because Internet information is often incorporated by reference using links. This makes the information easier to read and allows relevant information to be easily accessed.

Section 10 outlines the areas of existing law to which the Bill will not apply. Laws governing the registration of immovable property, wills, trusts and enduring powers of attorney are excluded because it is felt that the technology and systems are not yet at a stage where such transactions can be executed electronically. The rules and laws governing how the courts work are also excluded for the time being. However, once it is appropriate to extend the legislation to these areas, section 10(2) gives the Minister the power to make regulations to that effect.

Section 11 clarifies that nothing in the Bill shall prejudice tax law. This is felt necessary to ensure that the provisions of the Bill do not inadvertently contradict tax law or create loopholes for tax avoidance. This provision does not in any way hinder the Revenue Commissioners from dealing with their customers electronically. On the contrary, the Finance Act, 1999, specifically provided for the electronic filing of tax returns and preparations for introducing this measure are well advanced. The Revenue Commissioners have been to the fore in developing systems in this regard for which I commend them. The regulations under the Companies Acts, which permit the electronic dealing in shares on the Stock Exchange, are also included in this section to prevent any unforeseen inconsistencies.

Section 12 sets out the basic standard that electronic writing must meet to be considered as meeting any requirements in law that information be in writing. With the Statute Book now available electronically on CD-ROM, it is easy to search for specific words. It may interest the House to know that there are 5,631 references to the word "writing" in statutes since 1922. The section lays down that electronic writing must be accessible for subsequent reference. Subsection (2) makes a distinction between public and private bodies. It is considered necessary to clarify that public bodies are free to lay down various requirements before they receive electronic writing.

The distinction between public and private bodies is also included in subsequent sections. The provision recognises that public bodies may have particular form and security requirements. They are allowed to introduce those requirements in an objective, transparent, proportionate and non-discriminatory manner. In no way are these provisions an opportunity for public bodies to lag behind. This Bill and the world of responding to customer needs create between them an imperative to introduce such systems sooner rather than later.

Section 13 is similar in format to the previous section and deals with the use of electronic signatures in place of written signatures under the law. The term "signature" appears 748 times in statutes since 1922. Electronic signatures perform the same role as written signatures by authenticating the origin of a document. They are a very important method of securing transactions on the Internet.

Section 14 allows for signatures to be witnessed electronically. In this case, however, advanced electronic signatures must be used. These offer a higher level of security which is considered necessary for documents that need to be witnessed. For certain important documents a seal is also required in addition to a signature to add a greater degree of authenticity to the document in question. Section 15 provides for an electronic method of meeting the requirement for a seal using electronic signatures.

Often there are requirements that information be retained or presented in its original form and disputes can often arise over the question of originality. Section 16 allows for the electronic documents to meet the requirement of originals, subject to certain requirements. There are also many legal requirements to retain documents. Section 17 allows for the retention and subsequent production of documents electronically.

Section 18 is one of the more important sections. It provides that a contract may be concluded using electronic communications and lays down the principle that a contract shall not be denied legal effect, validity or enforceability solely on the grounds that it is in electronic form. It also allows for the offer and acceptance of an offer to be carried out using electronic communications. Section 19 provides for basic presumptions regarding the determination of who sent an electronic communication. In essence for the purpose of a law, an electronic communication will be deemed to be that of the originator if it was sent by the originator.

Section 20 provides for the acknowledgement of receipt of electronic communications. Various levels of acknowledgements are available. The section proceeds on the assumption that acknowledgement procedures are to be used at the discretion of the originator. The section is not intended to deal with the legal consequences that flow from sending an acknowledgement of receipt apart from establishing the fact of receipt of the electronic communication. There is a clear distinction there. It is also important to be able to determine the time and place of dispatch and receipt of information for many existing rules of law. Section 21 provides a default rule for determining when and from where electronic communications are sent and when and where they are received.

One of the action points of the information society action plan is the early enactment of legislation dealing with electronic evidence in courts. Section 22 addresses this action point by providing for the admissibility of electronic information as evidence in legal proceedings. The assessment of the evidential weight of electronic communications is left to the courts. However, this section means that information cannot be denied admissibility as evidence in legal proceedings on the sole ground that it is in electronic form.

All these aspects are very far-reaching. While the Bill sets them out in straightforward terms they have huge implications. They will mark out a clear difference in how business can be done. We recognise that everybody may not be in a position, or may not want, to communicate electronically and that parallel paper and electronic systems will be maintained into the future. Section 23 clarifies this by providing that nothing in the Bill can be interpreted as requiring the use of electronic communications. It would be carrying the Big Brother concept very far if something like that was mandatory.

As already outlined with regard to section 8, which deals with penalties, it is important to have sufficient deterrents to ensure electronic signatures are not abused. Section 24 provides for a number of offences concerning the fraudulent use of electronic signatures, signature creation devices and electronic certificates. The offences are designed to address forgery of electronic signatures and the unauthorised use of them.

Section 25 lays down the investigative procedures for the offences created in the previous section. The purpose of this is to provide for lawful access to evidence only on the basis of a search warrant and where an offence or suspected offence under the Bill has occurred. The section also allows a court to issue a search warrant to require a person to disclose such evidence in intelligible form.

Section 26 is an important provision. It ensures that nothing in the Bill can be construed as requiring the disclosure or enabling the seizure of keys or codes used to keep information confidential. Such protection is essential for the security of e-commerce and received widespread industry support during the consultation process of which we spoke earlier.

Part III provides for matters relating to service providers who issue electronic signature certificates or provide other services relating to them. These service providers are known in the Bill as certification service providers.

Section 27 provides for accreditation and supervision of certification service providers. It states that these providers are free to set up business and offer their services without the need for any prior Government authorisation. It is important that this fledgling industry is not stifled by needless Government regulation. However, we are introducing a voluntary accreditation scheme which will be administered by the national accreditation board. The section also provides for a supervisory scheme of certification service providers, and these provisions are based on Article 3 of the electronic signatures directive.

Section 28 lays down the liability of certification service providers. Such a provider who issues a certificate as a qualified certificate to the public and who guarantees such a certificate shall be liable for any damage caused to any person who reasonably relies on such a certificate. Such certification service providers will have to assure the accuracy of all information in the qualified certificate as at the time of issue. They will also be liable for damages resulting from failure to register or publish revocation or suspension of the certificate unless they can establish that they have not acted negligently. The certification service provider may indicate in the qualified certificate limits on its liability provided these are clear and readily identifiable. This is traced back to the clear direction in the electronic signatures directive.

There is only one section in the last part of the Bill. Section 29 gives the Minister the power to place the registration of Irish Internet domain names on a statutory basis. The two-letter code assigned to Ireland for domain names is ‘ie'. I had a laugh at that because ‘ie' also stands for Iarnród Éireann. It is not clear at this stage whether such regulations will be needed. However, it is felt prudent to provide for the power at this stage. The ‘ie' domain name is a national resource which should be managed in the public interest and in the interests of the Internet community. The Schedule repeats the annexes to the electronic signatures directive for reference purposes.

This is a brief overview of what is contained in the Bill. With the speed of change, there will undoubtedly be a need for further e-commerce related legislation in years to come. It is a facilitatory measure and an important first step towards adapting our laws to the new realities of the information society. I thank the House for arranging to take this Bill. It was passed at Cabinet on Tuesday and I wanted it well aired before Easter. I listened to Senator Quinn asking where were the Bills the Government promised. I hope to publish two more next week, but it is a hope, so the Senator should not haul me in if I do not publish them in that time. We wanted to give the Bill a good airing and I can think of no better Chamber than the Seanad in which to do so.

I thank the officials in my Department who have put a great deal of work into the consulta tive process concerning this legislation. They have attended to the Bill in a very modern way and have been painstaking in their endeavours. They took great trouble in preparing, formulating and moving the Bill forward.

I commend the Bill to the House.

This is a very important Bill and I commend the Minister and her Department for the excellent work they have put into preparing the agenda for change, which is e-commerce. As the Minister said, it is a great tribute to her officials that they are so well on top of the issues involved. Through the initial consultative process and their widespread contacts with the bodies concerned they have shown the Department of Public Enterprise to be a dynamic and forward-looking Department which is at the cutting edge of change.

The Bill aims to enhance Ireland's position as a leading player in e-commerce. The country is already regarded in Europe and elsewhere around the world as blazing a trail in this sector. The Bill has been well thought out and researched and, as such, I do not think there will be disagreement on any aspect of it. Some sections may be controversial but these can be teased out on Committee Stage.

E-commerce is the future. It will be a future in which people can access the world through the Internet directly from their living rooms via computers and, thanks to Unison, through the television set. Statistically, most people use e-commerce to buy small items for personal use, such as books, magazines and other consumer products. That is only a small portion of Internet business, however. E-commerce is also used for on-line stock and share trading, business to business contacts, with which this Bill is particularly concerned, and accessing the resources of large Departments and commercial organisations. E-commerce can profoundly influence the carrying out of business transactions in total security and the Bill addresses those needs.

In the United States approximately 46 million people will spend over £16 billion in the next 12 months using e-commerce. The Minister quoted a figure of 14 billion for current e-commerce transactions in Europe, which will soar to 270 billion by 2003. Those figures demonstrate that a massive amount of business is being done on the Internet. The growth is phenomenal and there is no doubt it will continue. We need to drive that change and we are doing so through the Bill.

We also need to address some important issues, including telephone charges for Internet use. One of the big problems for people using the Internet – and I am talking about an average household with young children who are Internet-active – is the average extra cost of about £40 per two months on their telephone bill. That is what I am paying and I have three normal young children who like to go on the Internet every night, if they can.

In the United Kingdom some companies are offering free Internet access, although I do not understand the economics involved. As legislators we do not have a particular role in that matter, other than supporting the environment for a change in Internet charges which should be as low as possible. Some providers on the Internet are charging far too much for the service. We should encourage free Internet access for people across the country, as that would make a difference.

With the advent of television access, virtually everyone can access the Internet because one does not need a PC to do so. When people become aware of it and invest £300 in this technology, as many thousands more will, it will further develop e-commerce. I heard on the radio yesterday that not only will we be able to gain access to the Internet on a mobile 'phone but, through a system of voice navigation, motorists will be able to gain access to the information.

The world is changing rapidly as a result of advances in technology. This country is coping well with such change. Our education system is producing the finest graduates. We are the best placed country in the world to take advantage of such technological advances. That has been recognised by all the international companies in the computer and technology industries that have located here. The enactment of the Bill will encourage further investment by such companies in the State. That is to be welcomed. Each incremental step to make advances in this area, which the Bill is facilitating, will further benefit society.

People have raised the issue of security in using credit cards to pay for business transacted over the Internet and that in turn raises the issue of the reputation of Internet companies. They may have fine Internet sites, but we do not know much about them. The issue of policing such transactions arises. While the Bill does not deal specifically with this issue, I raise it because it is important and we need to consider how we will deal with this issue internationally. How do we establish whether company X is a legitimate company with which to do business? Having purchased some items over the Internet, I am aware that consumer associations can vet Internet companies. E Bay Commerce, a company in the United States from which people can buy products, rates Internet companies, gives a list of the recent transactions dealt with by a particular company and the views of the consumers who purchased its products.

We need to introduce international protocols to regulate this area. I do not propose extreme regulation of the Internet, rather I am talking about building consumer confidence in such business. The criteria that apply to such business transactions should be known and adhered to, and this would ensure that such a form of business would be first class. In that way, Internet companies that do not produce the goods would not be able to transact business and the problems that have arisen in the past could be avoided. That is an important matter which we need to address.

People are concerned about movements in the shares of Internet companies. In recent weeks they got a fair rattling on the international trading market and it got much coverage due to Microsoft's domination of the market. I am not a financial wizard – if I were I would not be standing here.

I have every confidence in the creativity underpinning modern communication and the new companies being set up. They can be compared to the explorers in the past. They are exploring new markets and instead of travelling by ship, they are transacting business with the assistance of a telephone line. Children aged nine to 12 will witness remarkable changes in the next 40 to 50 years, the likes of which have not been witnessed in consecutive generations for many years. The future seems to be fantastic. To get a sense of this, one only need talk to children in a computer class to find that their ability to grasp the issues, to communicate and to search for and retrieve information is phenomenal.

The Internet and e-commerce will serve the consumer. This Bill seeks to ensure that companies that wish to become involved in e-commerce will have access to a free market, unregulated in terms of their security. As the Minister said, they will have a facility which may not be available in the UK or other countries to transact their business efficiently and effectively with little interference and much encouragement from the State. That is what this Bill is about.

Section 26 is important and it may require detailed discussion on Committee Stage, as Members may have different views on it.

It deals with the security issue.

Yes. I welcome the Bill and I am pleased to support it. My party supports what the Minister is doing in this sphere and it will shortly produce a document dealing not only with e-commerce but "e-life". I congratulate the Department for its efficient and effective work in producing this important legislation.

I welcome the Minister to the House. She is one of my favourite Ministers as she adds an element of spice and humour to our deliberations that is sometimes lacking. I welcome this important Bill. When the Minister took office she set down as one of her goals that Ireland would become a major European hub for electronic commerce. Her aim is that Ireland will become a global leader in advanced telecommunications, the Internet and e-commerce. This Bill is one of the many initiatives the Government has set out over the past two and a half years as part of its ongoing programme to reach the goal of ensuring a better Ireland for all of us.

During a previous debate the Minister referred to "an Ireland grasping eagerly at new techno logies, new modes of commercial transaction". I share her view that to create a better Ireland we must seize the opportunities presented by such change and invest in the talent and ingenuity of our young people. Adapting to the information society is a challenge faced by Governments globally. It calls for a cohesive integrated strategy at Government level, which I hope will transcend traditional policy making divisions. That is a major challenge and it will harness the potential to which such change will give rise. The Information Society Commission was set up recently under the Office of the Taoiseach. Its benchmark is to monitor the progress of the initiatives in this area and to enhance awareness of them in the public domain.

The Government has striven to ensure we are at the forefront of e-commerce development and readiness. That position is widely recognised. President Clinton referred to Ireland as the virtual gateway to Europe and the proof of that is evident – 60% of all business software sold in Europe emanates from this country. We are the second largest exporter of software in the world. We have come a long way but we have a long way to go.

I am confident that the foundations are firmly in place and that we are advancing the proper framework on which our future economic success can be built. We must act in that regard and the introduction of this Bill is the way to proceed. It is estimated that within two years 128 million people will be purchasing via the web. If we ignore this, we do so at our commercial peril. It is, therefore, imperative that we put in place a proper infrastructure and improve our laws. This Bill will do that. We need to improve our skills as part of the ongoing building process.

It is important to examine some of the things the Government has achieved in this area to date. This comprehensive Electronic Commerce Bill will enable Irish business to benefit fully from the growth in Internet business. In June 1998 a policy framework on encryption and digital signatures was adopted. The Taoiseach and President Clinton signed an Ireland-US joint communiqué on electronic commerce in September 1998, using electronic signatures. The Information Society Commission and IBEC launched a joint campaign aimed at raising awareness of the benefits of the new technologies in the business community. That campaign was part funded by the Minister's Department. A decision was made to establish a digital park from which companies engaged in digital industries could operate with high telecommunications infrastructure and on-site support services. There is the preparation of legislation to transpose EU directives to ensure protection of personal data. There is also the preparation of legislation to give effect to international law regarding the protection of copyright and related rights. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland are adjusting their focus to take account of the new technologies and the huge potential of e-commerce.

In May 1999 the Government committed investment of £75 million to create in excess of 5,400 third level places on IT courses, which is excellent. There is a £180 million initiative to aid research and development in this field. The fast track to IT initiative is a programme to train 3,000 long-term unemployed people for IT sector jobs. The Government has invested a further £180 million for research in higher education to help Ireland become an international centre for innovation. There is a provision of £120 million under the national development plan 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. A European branch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to be established in Dublin. A contract is being negotiated to provide a 15-fold increase approximately in international connectivity into and out of Ireland, at approximately one-tenth of the existing cost.

Despite these major advances, we still lag behind the United States in embracing the knowledge economy. We need to pay attention to this issue because we cannot afford to fall behind. We must promote greater investment in advanced infrastructure. We need to accelerate the development of e-commerce and ensure access for all so that everyone can benefit from the information society. It is the Minister's personal objective that Ireland will become a fully networked society at all levels as soon as possible. There is little doubt from what she has achieved over the last two and a half years that she is well on her way to achieving that goal. I support fully the Minister's view that for us to achieve our goals in relation to the Information Society, all sectors of society must be included. Everyone must benefit and the accelerated development of the regions is crucial.

In Ireland we have insisted that all projects run by the Department have a strong regional bias and a high public policy element. Looking to the near future, the £120 million provided in the national development plan will continue that investment in modern communications and e-commerce infrastructure in the regions over the next five years. We must ensure that the projects funded under the plan reach beyond the main networks to peripheral and less developed areas and, hopefully, eventually into isolated communities. This philosophy also extends to the provision of electronic government. Internet access and the wholesale availability of Government and local authority services on-line could empower people even better. Electronic government is probably the ultimate in democracy and will make politicians and public officials more accountable.

The information society must allow us to improve our lives and enrich our contacts, connections and communities. It has the potential to lead to a more democratic, open and inclusive society, but it is up to all of us to ensure this potential is maximised. Initiatives such as the Eircom Ennis information age town project – a co-operative between a community and a communications company – help us to see where the gaps are in improving access to technologies which will be an even more familiar part of our day to day lives as this concept progresses.

The information society is moving at the speed of thought. We need to be receptive to new thinking, new ideas and new business models. We need to look out the front window, not the rear window, in this regard. E-commerce has made Europe a manageable single market. It has probably made the world a truly global village. It breaks down barriers, is disdainful of borders and looks unashamedly to the future. Its challenges are completely outweighed by the richness of the opportunities which will be presented. Facing the challenge of the information society requires a concerted visionary effort. Government, businesses, communities and individuals need to work together in moving e-commerce forward. Most of all, we as policy makers need to have the courage to build for the future.

In November 1998 the Minister published the much heralded report of the advisory committee on telecommunications. This was a watershed in efforts to make Ireland a European hub for electronic commerce. The recommendations contained in the report were in four categories: promotion of competition in telecommunications, Internet access and connectivity to global networks, e-commerce and development of human resources. E-commerce refers to the use of electronic networks to arrange or complete transactions which include Internet-based advertising and marketing, on-line ordering of goods such as books, wines and cars, the delivery over the Internet of products such as newspapers, magazines, music and software and the efficiency gains which can be obtained through using the Internet for business communications, inventory management and so on.

This is the age of the Internet and will be the age of e-commerce. The pace of development of the Internet and e-commerce is unprecedented and breathtaking. The full implications of these developments probably are not yet known but it is already clear that there will be major implications for business. Already we know that high quality competitive Internet access is vital. We must have this if we want to succeed in business. We must be to the forefront in adopting the Internet as a business tool and in providing a legal framework which is favourable for e-commerce if we are to promote the growth of indigenous companies in the digital age and to remain an attractive location for internationally mobile investment.

We are already a high tech economy. We are the world's second largest exporter of software after the US and the location of choice for US call and technical support services located in Europe. We must find the correct way to build on the success which we have already achieved and I believe we are going the right way about this.

The e-commerce revolution has dictated that we update our laws to take account of the on-line world. Where there are legal uncertainties, they create barriers to e-commerce reaching its full potential. The Bill before us today was urgently needed. The Minister fast-tracked this in order to clarify and eliminate any uncertainties. It creates a legal framework for business on the Internet in Ireland in the future. This is the first European country to enact such comprehensive e-commerce legislation and there is no doubt Ireland will benefit significantly as a result. It is a new law for a new era and a new way of doing things. The Bill sustains and underpins the revolution that the on-line world is beginning to generate in all our lives and the way we will do business in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Bill and the Minister to the House with equal enthusiasm because she has been a consistent and energetic champion of e-commerce. We are aware of the speed with which this business has moved from what Senators have said this morning and from the experience in our homes. Last year my daughter travelled to America and phoned home in tears because the apartment she attempted to lease was in a bad state and had to be deloused. Her mother and brother decided to send her a bunch of flowers and within seconds the flowers appeared on the screen. Something did go wrong because our daughter telephoned four hours later to say her pals think she has the coolest mum in the world. Apparently either our son or somebody else had put a message on the flowers about fleas which was rather rude and was not capable of being carried. We understand that things happen. Our children at home get books by post because it is cheaper to get them in that way. From a business point of view every time we build a new supermarket and spend a great deal of money on bricks and mortar we question whether people will still shop in buildings in 20 or 30 years' time. There are threats.

I think they will be complementary.

I hope so. On the other hand it is nice to keep a foot in both camps to know what is happening.

I welcome the Bill which, while important in itself, is also historic in that it is the first serious effort to bring Irish law into line with the information age. My overall message today is that we are still not moving fast enough to win the e-commerce race. I am not sure whether e-commerce will be the right word. It is being said that m-commerce is the word, given that it will all be mobile. That we are not moving fast enough is not a casual remark but a carefully considered judgment, one that I hope will not provoke denial on the part of the Government but a determi nation to move even faster. Since my overall thrust is critical of the pace at which we are moving, I give full credit for the real progress made so far.

I have been watching the developments we now term the information age, and of which e-commerce is a vital part, since the end of the 1980s. At that stage everything was in a state of flux and everybody's vision of the future was very blurred. What was certain was that the world of telecommunications was changing fast. High-priced national monopolies were starting to collapse all over the world, opening up for the first time the prospect of good global communications, such as ordering flowers in New York and having them delivered in three hours. Nobody was sure what all this would mean. The Internet was virtually unknown ten years ago because the enabling technology that opened up had not been developed at that stage.

From the beginning I saw in this shake-up in telecommunications an historic opportunity for Ireland. The Dargan report of 1979, which has nothing to do with e-commerce, said if we were to get our telecommunications system into being we had to do something. The Government of the day separated telecommunications from post and everybody said the bright new attractive thing was telecommunications and that the old-fashioned letter post was not likely to continue. Those of us who were involved in An Post felt like second-class citizens or the poor relation. Yet there is the ability to do both, as the Minister has said, with a foot in both camps, to survive and thrive, as is likely, because they have been far-reaching and far-sighted enough.

I knew our economic potential had always been limited by our geography. Despite the leaps and bounds we had made in exporting, there were still many things we simply could not do because of our remote peripheral position. Our potential, even in Europe, was limited by the fact that we had either one long strip of water, or two short strips of water, between us and the European mainland. There is now a proposal to put a tunnel between Ireland and Britain. That would come within the Minister's remit.

Yes, but they are not getting in for a feasibility study or otherwise.

Dominic Behan, with his "Thank God we're surrounded by water", would be disappointed at that too. That fact of geography limited us in the industries we could attract in those days and limited what Irish industrialists could do because it was not easy to export certain products. The vision the telecommunications revolution held out was that virtually at a stroke, this historic limitation on our potential might be removed. Nobody knew how that would happen because nobody knew just how a business world with cheap telecoms would take shape and what type of world it would be.

From the beginning I felt this was a once-off opportunity for Ireland and we had to be in the vanguard if we were to realise that potential. For that reason I became an early champion of the information age. Virtually from my first day in the House, I kept stressing the importance of the new era for us, pushing the notion that it was a new era and not just another fad or a fashion but something that would have profound implications. In those days I wanted to convince people we were on the brink of change and that this could turn out to be an ever bigger step for Ireland than for anyone else.

It took years for this to become part of the conventional wisdom. It could mean more to us than to other countries. At first, progress was very slow. Deregulation of telecoms, which was at the heart of it, happened at a snail's pace, dragged back by forces within Telecom Éireann who, very foolishly, wanted to hold off radical change to the last possible moment.

There was a road to Damascus conversion on this – to which the Minister referred and gave credit to Deputy John Bruton – at the end of 1996. It was then that the worldwide web began to gather speed and make an impact. On a more local basis, it may also have been the approach of the 1997 general election that concentrated minds. By mid-1997, it was suddenly accepted by everybody that the information age was central to Ireland's future and we needed to focus on it.

When I read all the wonderful things the Fianna Fáil election manifesto said about the information age and e-commerce, I was sceptical that any of it would be taken seriously after the election. As it turned out, this was one part of that manifesto, there may have been others, that did not end up in a wastepaper basket.

Since 1997, under the current Minister, we have seen a focus on the information age of quite a new order. It became clear that this was not just one Minister with a personal mission but the entire Government began to sing from the same hymn-book. Things started to happen in a big way and we see signs of that today.

On the deregulation front, barriers were swept away faster than many of us expected due to the Minister's action, but perhaps not as fast as they could have been. Telecom Éireann – now Eircom – was finally privatised and competitors were brought in. Strategic investments were made in key areas such as broadband, and international partnerships forged to strengthen and deepen our links to the global telecoms backbone. We have made more progress in the past four or five years than in the previous 20 years. When we look at what has been done recently, and compare it to the past, we must be impressed. The difference is astounding. Unfortunately, however, that is the wrong comparison. The past is dead, the past is irrelevant. Benchmarking ourselves against the past will do nothing for us in the future.

What counts now is not what is invested compared with the past but what is invested com pared with the need. This is where we are falling down. We are running fast but we are not running fast enough to win the race. There are not many second places in this – there are no each way bets. Winning the race is what this exercise is all about.

Today, in contrast to the misty vision at the beginning of the 1990s, we have a clear idea of what the information age is all about. We know what the prize is. The prize that is up for grabs is to make Ireland the European leader in e-commerce, to make Ireland the hub, literally, around which Europe's electronic business revolves.

Last year I sat with Lee Kuan Yeu, senior Minister and founder of Singapore. I have always been an admirer of Singapore and I have spoken about some of the things I have seen there. Rogue pricing, for example, is something I would like to discuss with the Minister on another occasion. I have seen it work and steer people to do things they would not otherwise have done.

Some years ago Singapore announced its intention to be the hub of e-commerce business in Asia and perhaps throughout the world. Geography is no longer a barrier to our determination to become the centre of e-commerce. Neither are know-how and money barriers to it. The only barrier remaining is our own inertia and lack of determination to carry things through. If we really believe we can do it, we can.

The idea of making Ireland the European e-commerce hub is now a political catch-cry and there is a danger in that. We are very good at mouthing such catch-cries while not doing enough to make things happen. There is a risk that this project will become like the plan to drain the Shannon which was originally talked about so long ago. Indeed, we are still talking about it. Unless we deliver the plan quickly it will become totally discredited and the vision will never become a reality.

We are not moving fast enough. At the most basic level we are not moving fast enough in deregulation or in stimulating competition in telecommunications companies. Deregulation is central but we have let it get bogged down. We did not anticipate the process being stopped in its tracks by a wave of litigation but that is what is happening. Not only did we not foresee this but we have taken no steps to deal with it. If we allow the pace of court cases to dictate our progress we will arrive at the finishing line long after the race is over, and no each way bets are being taken. Indeed, the crowd will have gone home and even the cleaners will have finished their work. We need a new regulatory framework which will help the changeover to take place fast enough to make it work for us. We can never trample on constitutional rights but even within that framework we can build a regime which keeps control in our own hands and does not surrender it to lawyers and litigants who would be happy to play their games until the cows come home.

When the Bill to set up the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation was going through the House I said it was not proactive enough. The legislation saw the regulator as simply holding the ring, on the assumption that the public good would emerge from a fair fight between all parties. The State was not a disinterested spectator. It was a party with a definite interest in a particular outcome: better, cheaper telecommunications companies on a scale and quality which would deliver Ireland's full potential. I argued for a more interventionist regulator. I think history has borne me out and I make the same argument now. The regulator should not simply ensure fairness between contestants. She must ensure that while fairness is fully maintained, the national objectives are facilitated and encouraged. The regulator's job is to encourage competition, not merely to be fair. In practice, the regulator has tried to do this but she has little or no legislative backing. The legislation is deliberately not proactive. This is part of the reason it has given rise to so much litigation. I hope we can do whatever is necessary to deal with this problem.

The reason for having an independent regulator was that the State itself, as owner of the biggest telecommunications company in the country, was a player in the competitive game. The State could not be both a player and a judge of all the other players. Now, thanks to the Minister for Public Enterprise, the situation is radically different. The State will shortly have no interest whatsoever in Eircom and will no longer be a player in the competitive marketplace. The time is now right for the State itself to take up the role of regulator. Given that it has a policy and an interest in how things turn out, the State would be the best organ for seeing that its policy was fully carried out and the national interest fully served.

There is a false belief that competition on its own can deliver all we want. I am a lifelong champion of competition but even I do not believe that competition alone can give us all we need. If one changes from a monopoly to a duopoly or even a triopoly, one does not guarantee that the public interest is served or the customer's needs are met. The more players the better but a business such as e-commerce which is only ever going to have a relatively small number of players is just as likely to become a cartel as to act fully in the public interest. This is why we need proactive regulation and why we must establish a system to develop it.

Sometimes – and telecommunications companies are a prime example – one needs investment to run ahead of demand. By investing in capacity and making it available at the right price one helps to create the very demand which will make the investment viable. Doing this entails a risk and, despite all one hears, most private sector companies are not in love with risk for its own sake. One can have a safer situation where the players invest, not ahead of demand and to stimu late it, but in response to demand as it arises. This second way of doing things often makes the best commercial sense. It is certainly the most prudent way for a private company to behave. However, in this case and at this time it is not what the national interest demands. We need the players to take risks that competitive forces would not necessarily make them do on their own. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of broadband capacity on a nationwide basis to every household. If we could provide that, we would be making real progress. To do so is in the national interest if we want to become an information age society very fast.

This is not in the immediate commercial interest of any of the players and if we wait for customer demand to stimulate that development we will be waiting for a very long time. This is an instance where the State, in licensing competition between private sector players, has to be very directive as to what it wants to see happen and the timescale in which it wants to see it happen.

This is not how we are doing things at the moment, despite the real progress we have been making and continue to make. This is role reversal. I am like a schoolteacher marking the Minister's report, "Could do better". I used to get that comment regularly.

I get it all the time.

The Minister's report card is not the only one at issue. This must be a Government venture, not only in the sense that all Ministers must be behind it but quite a few Departments need to be actively involved and proactive. So far, the only people running with this ball are the Minister for Public Enterprise and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I would like to see other Ministers more proactively involved. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform needs to be deeply involved.

Cyber crime is a real challenge for which we must be ready. I am not talking about people running off and putting the Taoiseach's name on a website, annoying and frustrating as that may be. I am talking about cyber terrorism, which we saw only two months ago. It is part of the future whether we like it or not and we will have to do something about it. If we want to be leaders we have to be ready for that challenge, not respond after the event when untold and probably irreparable harm may have been done.

The scope of the Bill is restricted to electronic commerce but in what I wish to say next I am not straying from its focus. I am going right to the heart of the Bill because our success in e-commerce will depend on the extent to which we as a nation embrace the new era, the new culture. This is another key area where we are not moving fast enough. There is a wrong assumption at play, that what worked for us a generation ago with the multinationals we attracted then will work for us again. We are failing to realise that the two situations are fundamentally different.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s we attracted companies way beyond what we could have created ourselves. Although we were still primarily an agricultural country, we succeeded in attracting high-tech sunrise industries to use Ireland for manufacturing by offering lower costs, higher incentives and a tax deal that they just could not turn down. We slowly became more sophisticated in our response and adapted our education system to turn out more engineers and technicians. Gradually we moved ourselves up the value chain.

The key point is that for these companies to locate here in the first place we did not need to be all that far advanced. It was enough for us to respond after the event, which then snowballed with the result that nowadays, even though we no longer offer a low-cost manufacturing base, we offer a sophisticated one with considerable depth in areas such as research and marketing. If we think, however, that this approach will work for us in electronic commerce we are wrong. It will attract low-end activities such as call centres which are very welcome but it will not work for high-end activities, and that is where we must ultimately be if we are to become the European e-commerce hub.

An e-commerce company considering Ireland in competition with other European countries will use several different yardsticks. It will look first at telecoms. Is there enough capacity? Is it cheap enough? How does it work? We are not by any means in the hunt yet, even though we are making great progress. It will then look at the regulatory background for e-commerce – the sort of framework being put in place with this Bill. Here at least we are up with the pack and, as Senator Kett said, perhaps ahead. Quality is an issue as well as timing and we stand to benefit from deciding to impose only a very light regulatory touch on e-commerce, a decision on which I commend the Government. It will look finally and crucially at the culture into which it is moving. It will ask if this country is ready for e-commerce. Are its people as a whole computer literate as opposed to a small coterie of IT professionals? How far down the road is this country in making the transition from the old era to the new? It is on this third yardstick that we are still by far the weakest. I am scared about this because in the end it may turn out to be even more important than the other two.

What I mean by that is that in a competitive situation one may have a position where there is not very much between various European countries on the first two yardsticks – the areas of price and quality – but there may be on the third. Let us suppose that the telecommunications and the regulatory framework are in place when the European directives come into force. In that situation the third yardstick could be the difference between countries. It could well be that the prize of European e-commerce hub will go to the country whose people have demonstrated that they have embraced the new era faster and more comprehensively than any other. Such a decision-making approach would make sense. If one is looking for the right place to centre e-commerce one would be very sensible to choose where the ground is most fertile.

That is why I fear for Ireland. Our progress so far is only impressive because we are coming from so far behind. The hard undeniable fact is that we are still far behind, too far behind if we want to win the race. Let me give some examples. At the most basic level we are behind on telephone penetration; in the number of people with personal computers or access to them; in the number of people and companies using the Internet; in the numbers of computers in schools and the extent to which they are used, and in the amount of Government services which are accessible electronically. Although we are miles ahead of where we were two years ago, we are still behind the rest of Europe. On all these measures and others we are behind the European average and most of our European partners. We have been making fast progress but in judging whether it is fast enough we have to relate not to where we are coming from but to where we want to go and where others already are. By these benchmarks we fail very badly.

That is why I suggest we have to raise our game. If I thought there was nothing we could do about it I would just shut my mouth but in all these matters the future is in our own hands. If the will is there we can change our performance on these yardsticks dramatically and very fast. If we want a headline to follow let us look to the place about which I spoke earlier – Singapore. Singapore is determined to win the role in South East Asia that we seek in Europe but, unlike us, it is going about it in a comprehensive and totally determined way. It recognises the need to build an electronic culture and is doing so. It is currently in the throes of a six week blitz intended to jump public awareness and capability to a new level, as part of which it has invented a new Internet designator to be used alongside dot.com, dot.org and others. It has introduced dot.per which stands for person. It is the designator that individuals can use on the Internet and reflects Singapore's vision that everyone in the country will have not just an e-mail address but a personal presence on the web. That is the kind of thinking we need in this country.

That is why I welcome this historic Bill with a heavy heart because I know we are not moving fast enough or comprehensively enough to realise Ireland's full potential in the new era opening out before us. I asked a man from Japan whom I met last year and greatly admired, "How did you succeed in building such a huge business when so many others didn't?" Having had time to think he said, "You asked me a question about half an hour ago about which I have been thinking. The answer is whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you are right." He explained that if you take part in a golf or football game saying, "We have no chance of winning this," you are right, you will not win. If on the other hand you take part saying, "We can win this," you can win.

It is like an election campaign.

I am sure it is. The Government has the ability to achieve this. What we need to do is get the nation behind us. We need to believe we can do it. I congratulate the Minister on introducing the Bill and I am glad that she is the person processing it through the House.

I welcome the Bill which, as Deputy Quinn said, is truly historic. I have reservations, not necessarily about the Bill but about what Senator Quinn spoke about, the rate at which we are moving and the fact that we have set ourselves the goal of becoming the European hub for e-commerce. I question whether we will attain this goal.

There is no doubt that we have made huge strides in this area in the past ten years and in the past four to five years in particular but as Senator Quinn said, the area of "e-government" should be strengthened greatly, particularly on services available to the public. The Minister might consider that if the Government is to give the lead in this area it must be seen to be making progress on new technology also. This raises the question as to whether it is being managed properly.

I worked in a Government Department in the 1970s and 1980s. When we got a computer for statistical work, courses were given on how to use it. When I was in college I did not use computers. However, it was interesting that it was purely age related when it came to those who were prepared to take on this new technology in dealing with the work on a daily basis and those who were not. This is relevant to the discussion. One of our strengths in attaining supremacy relates to the whole structure of our population. They are young and well educated, but I question to what extent they are being educated in the whole sphere of computers.

Is there a sufficient number of computers in our schools? Some of the well-known private schools are well equipped in this area and they have the teaching staff to support the system, but I question if that is the case with the rest of our schools. A computer room, with the best of equipment, may be available to students and staff but in many cases the teachers have only a personal interest in the use of computers. I am not sure this will win any race for us. It is of vital importance that qualified professional people are employed in teaching children. People who use computers on a regular basis would be capable of showing others how to use them but they would only be able to do that in the areas of software they use themselves. I use computers in my business and I could give courses to people on their use, but it would be in the way I use them.

It is particularly important we move much faster in the area of e-commerce. The rate of change in this area is so rapid it is vitally important that people are devoted to it on a full-time and not a part-time basis. Unless we manage this revolution properly we could reinforce some of the divisions in society. If it is embraced properly, one benefit will be that many of these divisions will be removed and the problem of peripherality – not only internationally but within countries – could be addressed to great effect. I question if enough is being done in that regard.

I spoke earlier about the danger of elitism and of a chasm opening up between those who can operate in this new technological age and those who cannot. It cannot be allowed develop.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister. It is a case of what we can do to address the situation. If there are schools which are equipped with computers we should make them available to everyone in society. They should not be locked away at weekends and evenings. Many people wishing to embrace this area, who may not have computers in their homes, would be delighted to attend a class or have access to the Internet and they would avail of these computers. I know problems might arise with regard to insurance but we should be able to overcome them. That is what we should focus on.

We should consider sub-post offices and the problems they are experiencing. Necessary services are being provided but an opportunity exists whereby people who do not have computer equipment could avail of it there. In pushing Ireland forward in this race and in ensuring it wins – as it must since there are no second places – we must address the cost of telecommunications. Access to the Internet must become less expensive.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for initiating this Bill in the Seanad.

I have been a computer addict for about 20 years since I got the Commodore computer and began to type letters on it. I did not have a good education as I left after national school but for some unknown reason I am computer literate.

That is great.

I use the computer for all the work with regard to the Seanad. Any of the other Senators who use their computers will know that.

Many areas have been touched upon today. I am a member of the SMI committee and many Government Departments are way behind in the use of computers – they are not user friendly. When we had a meeting with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the media were present, it did not go down too well when I said that about 80% of the farming community were illiterate in the filling of the complicated and complex EU grant application forms. At a subsequent meeting, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development said that in future years farmers could use computers in the filling of these forms. Nowadays many people have personal computers. This would be useful because as everybody has different handwriting it is impossible for the departmental officials to be certain that they read the forms correctly. Some people write the number seven like a one. The Revenue Commissioners have a very high standard and we were satisfied with them.

All of my children got a good education. My two youngest children went to university but they were unemployed after they graduated. They decided to kill time by doing a FÁS course in my town which lasted for nine months. They are both in very lucrative positions now. One works here in Dublin while the other works with computers for a French company called Galaxy. Senator Gibbons spoke about teaching the use of computers. My two children benefited from the FÁS course. When my daughter Michelle started to work for a computer company in Dublin her job required her to do a two year course in Trinity and gain a masters degree in computer science. This is an example of how companies promote information.

Senator Quinn referred to when the information age started. I remember being in the Seanad in 1987 when the then Minister, Deputy Albert Reynolds, borrowed massive amounts of money to upgrade our telephone and telecommunications systems. Everyone thought he was mad. At that time a person wanting to make a telephone call had to ask the local operator to connect to a number. When direct dial telephones were introduced people did not know the numbers because they had used the services of the operator. I am delighted the Minister paid tribute to Deputy John Bruton for the part he played in promoting the information society.

Like Senator Quinn, I am a bit critical. I know the Minister does not want me to speak about telecommunication masts. I do not want to see them around the place but they do not worry me. Why do we not use satellites? I have Sky and digital Sky television channels. I can do anything with them. I can send e-mail messages using my television, I do not need a computer to do it. I can also do my shopping using it but I am not into shopping. I like sports channels. I do not see why RTÉ cannot stop using the old fashioned methods of communication and use satellite. Some day we will go for it and it is about time we joined with someone else.

I can watch an Irish station called Tara on satellite digital television. I can watch the 6 o'clock news on Tara. I do not know how they do it but the station has nothing to do with RTÉ.

Like Senator Quinn, I was in Singapore and I was amazed that trade in computer components between Ireland and Singapore amounts to almost £1 billion. It is unbelievable that Ireland would do so much trade there.

I want to mention one person who started using information technology in a small way. During a bank strike in Kerry a man found himself twiddling his thumbs and he decided to start a finance company called FEXCO.

I was in it.

Did the Minister open it?

No. The owner invited me to visit his company because I was attending another function in Tralee.

It is mindboggling to visit FEXCO. We should arrange for a group, including Senator Quinn and anyone who is interested, to visit FEXCO. The company deals in millions of pounds every few minutes.

When I was in Canada I bought a few items and got a tax refund form. I was proud to discover that the tax refund is sent out from Killorglin. Since it is only 30 miles away from my home I thought I could hand in the form myself.

I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill here. She is a breath of fresh air.

I was Acting Chairman for the past half an hour and I had the opportunity to listen to all the fine contributions. It was an interesting and educational exchange.

I welcome the Minister who is always open and willing to discuss any matters that we might raise. I am delighted that this legislation has come before the House.

The right approach has been adopted with regard to this legislation. The emphasis is on having flexible regulations and a light regulatory framework rather than a heavy-handed one. It is a basic principle to establish a similar approach to electronic commerce as we already have in the conventional paper transactions that we engage in.

We have an obligation to introduce some of the European directives but it is far more than that. The important thing is that we are taking the initiative and going forward with our electronic commerce Bill because we want to be at the forefront in the race for e-commerce in Europe and internationally. We must ask ourselves a few questions first. Can we achieve that? Where are we at present? Will the mechanisms proposed here achieve that objective? Do we have sufficient infrastructure in place to boost us to the forefront of the e-commerce sector?

This Bill is simple in one way while being very sophisticated in another way. It deals with simple matters like electronic signatures, contracts, transactions and communications and it gives a statutory basis to electronic commerce. This legislation compares very favourably with proposed legislation in Britain. The British approach leans more towards a severe and heavy-handed regulatory mechanism with more emphasis on the penalties than on the regulatory process. We were very wise to avoid that approach. I may talk about the proposed penalties later. The overall thrust is towards light regulation providing an alternative to paper transactions rather than our examining ways to punish people who abuse the system. Ireland has an open economy and that is the approach we should take.

It is fortunate that Ireland's e-commerce developed in the 1990s because I cannot imagine how we would have coped with the same advances in the 1980s and 1970s. We are experiencing e-commerce at a time of comparative wealth. We have the resources to embark on new initiatives. We can move resources around as we think appropriate and we should be prepared to invest in new initiatives. It is a long way from the industrial revolution of the last century and the heavy-handed approach used then. A lighter industry is coming onstream now.

Although this is a light industrial format, there are many infrastructural components which must be addressed. Every week we ask the Leader when the Telecommunications (Infrastructure) Bill, 1999, which has been on the Order Paper for approximately 12 months, will be introduced. This Bill is to "establish a body to be known as the Telecommunications Infrastructure Board and to define its functions; to enable network operators to obtain access to and to acquire rights over land and to enable network operators to open and use public roads for the establishment or maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure; to provide for the sharing of telecommunications infrastructure; to amend and repeal certain enactments, and to provide for related matters".

Electronic commerce will be severely limited if we do not have a telecommunications infrastructure. We cannot have a sophisticated model which will compete with other countries unless we lay the cables, enact regulations and outline the mechanisms under which people will acquire land and co-operate in the use of existing equipment, such as masts, rights of way, etc. It is extremely important that we deal with such matters.

Our first telecommunications revolution took place when heavy cables were laid on the seabed between Kerry and the United States. We must now put in place fibre optic cables which are part of the infrastructure required. I am extremely disappointed the Government has not given a commitment to introduce the Telecommunications (Infrastructure) Bill, despite the fact that Senators ask the Leader about it every week.

No one told me.

While the Leader may not have mentioned it to the Minister, he was asked often enough about it.

It is the Global Crossing type of infrastructure, the broad connectivity, which is necessary.

I know that but I am talking about related infrastructure, such as telecommunications.

The other House is still dealing with the copyright Bill which deals with relevant issues in terms of intellectual and property rights. When it was introduced in this House we got no co-operation from the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He refused to accept one amendment. There are numerous amendments to it in the other House and we do not know when it will be passed. The matter could have been dealt with 12 months ago in this House if the Minister had been prepared to co-operate with us.

The Broadcasting Bill is also related to infrastructure. Senator Fitzgerald mentioned terrestrial and satellite television expertise. We must also deal with the digital element of broadcasting. We must be confident about what we are doing in this area and I hope we can move forward.

The Senator is talking about the overall picture.

Yes. If we want to revolutionise electronic business, we must sustain it in terms of capacity, cost and business confidence.

Senator Gibbons and the Minister referred to social elitism in this area and said that unless we got our act together we could end up with economic gurus while other sections of the population are left behind. However, the opposite is the case. There is great potential to open up the regions, the west and small areas, such as Athlone, Sligo and Letterkenny.

Athlone is not a small area.

To transform them into bigger areas.

From what they are at present.

They are small but they have quality.

I will tell the Labour Party in Athlone what the Senator said.

They are getting bigger and better. This is a great opportunity to transform the way we do things. E-commerce will provide greater flexibility for people to work at home and in smaller environments. This might help to deal with the housing crisis in Dublin. Our workforce will become more flexible at little or no extra cost. We must put the proper infrastructure in place to achieve this.

Electronic commerce ties in with the Government's proposals on decentralisation. While we have been critical of the statement by the Mini ster for Finance that 25,000 Civil Service jobs will be decentralised and the fact that every Minister will want to find a location in his or her constituency to which to decentralise his or her Department, we agree with the principle of decentralisation. This revolution in electronic commerce and communications will be a major part of that.

Perhaps the Minister could clarify the extent to which businesses are aware of what she is trying to do in this area. She said that forum discussions and consultations took place. How extensive were those consultations? I understand that only 10% of all businesses use electronic commerce. That means 90% of businesses are not engaged in it. That figure indicates there is a poor awareness of what we are trying to do. I know surveys have been carried out on the number of small and large businesses using electronic commerce but I am not sure how extensive they have been.

Have surveys been done on the cost of electronic commerce? It should be cheaper to engage in electronic commerce because travel and administrative costs are lower and the workforce is smaller and more flexible. I thought Enterprise Ireland would be full of ideas and would be holding seminars around the country. The Minister said that one or two meetings took place yesterday. A lot of work must be done to put us on the map.

I do not agree that we have the best educated workforce in Europe because we lag behind in many areas. According to the OECD report, we are second last of 25 countries in terms of our education and literacy and numeracy functions. If our literacy and numeracy functions are not up to scratch, we will have difficulty moving to more sophisticated things, although that is not necessarily the case. It is alarming that the White Paper on Adult Education has not yet been published. We were expecting that adult education would be comprehensively dealt with by now and I am sure it would have been if the Minister was still Minister for Education and Science. However, it is 12 months since the promised date of the White Paper on Adult Education.

Ireland also has a comparatively low level of access to third level education – only about 35% of the workforce have received third level education. Senator O'Dowd referred to the courses taking place in Ballymun and other areas which involve fast track computer skills courses for low skilled workers. Could this initiative be extended?

The issue of the certification of service providers is loosely dealt with by the Bill and I would have thought that it would be dealt with more efficiently. The issue of signatures on contracts and accreditation needs to be teased out to see how it will operate, how it will be resourced, what regulatory structures will be in place and how it will be supervised. I hope we can look at this issue on Committee Stage.

There must be penalties and they should be as severe as possible. However, there should be greater proportionality between summary penalties of £1,500 and penalties for indictable offences of £500,000. Rather than reducing the £500,000 penalty, the summary penalty should be increased in terms of its proportionality, effectiveness and constitutionality. The provisions dealing with encryption are a necessary part of the Bill and will protect individual privacy and human rights while making provision for those who abuse the system. I am sure this issue will also be dealt with by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

I share Senator Quinn's views that we have made enormous strides. However, some of the progress has blinded us to the fact that our infrastructure is backward and that the strides made have been based on a tenuous infrastructure. This issue needs to be addressed or the house of cards could easily fall. Senator Quinn seems to have come around to the Labour Party's view in terms of the role of the regulator and, coming from someone with such experience in the marketplace, I welcome his comments that competition should not be the sole criterion, allowing the marketplace to run wild.

We must not become smug about the current position. This is welcome legislation and I hope we will provide resources to make the Bill meaningful and effective in order that we ensure the necessary infrastructure is put in place.

The debate on the Bill has been of a very high standard, as is always the case in the Seanad. I do not say that in a patronising fashion as it was fascinating. It was interesting that Senators spoke from personal knowledge and experience and portrayed facets of their personality which I had not divined. The Bill evoked responses and ideas which are useful and interesting and which enthused me in many ways.

I thank Senators for their welcome for the Bill. Senator O'Dowd raised the issue of the cost of the Internet. He has vivid experience of how much Internet access costs his family and mentioned the sum of £40. He also raised the issue of security.

I agree with the Senator's comments that those involved in the Internet business are like the explorers of old who went in search of gold and to proselytise in new lands. This Bill deals with a different adventure trail. This is an interesting analogy and I welcome the Senator's comments.

Senator Kett also welcomed the Bill and said that we must seize the day in terms of the challenges we face. The Senator also said that Ireland is the second largest exporter of software products. However, yesterday we became the largest exporter of such goods and it is a telling and welcome statistic that a country the size of Ireland has overtaken the US in the export of software products.

Senator Kett also referred to the need for investment in IT education. MIT has come to Ireland and the Government took a decision last week on capital investment in MediaLab. This will make a significant contribution to how Ireland is perceived internationally with regard to our serious intent to develop this sector. I agree with Senator Kett's assertion that we must look forward.

We would all agree that Senator Quinn spoke with great knowledge of this subject. I pay tribute to the Senator's work as chairman of An Post, which has made great progress and which sold Ireland On-line for over £100 million. This service was established when Senator Quinn was chairman of the company and is a very successful business. In addition, An Post's ordinary letter post business increased by 9% in the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year and this indicates that there is room for all kinds of communication.

When I looked into this issue I questioned whether large retail stores would close as people went on-line. Common sense and experience tell me that people will always want to feel the cloth, see the orange, the meat, etc., as well as shop on-line. There is a complementarity in the shopping experience that fits both aspects neatly together. Shopping is essentially a social interaction, which is why stores that emphasise training and approachability, such as Senator Quinn's, will always have customers as there is much more involved than merely purchasing – at least for women, whatever about men.

I thank Senator Quinn for his comments on the Fianna Fáil general election manifesto. This part of it is being implemented. He said rightly that benchmarking against the past is futile. We can consider ourselves powerful today by comparison with where we were, say, ten or even 20 years ago. However, that only provides a short-term vicarious glow. Nothing can be done with that kind of puffed up self-esteem. Winning and the future are what is important.

I circulated the document on regulation I produced; Senator Quinn would have received it. Like many elected people I have become worried about the pace of regulation and the diminution of the role of elected people. We are hiving off huge swathes of our activities to regulators. Even the then Government conceded that the 1996 Bill was faulty, but that was because it had to be drafted quickly. In a way we are now dealing with amendments to it.

However, it is wrong to delegate activities to regulators and decline to have further responsibility for them. At least we are accountable and the electorate has the opportunity to dismiss us. Regulators are not subject to such constraints. We have now issued a regulatory paper which I would be pleased to present to the House. We must strike a balance between the regulatory environment which is necessary in a competitive arena and accountability which must be at the cornerstone of everything that is done in all areas of life.

Senator Quinn suggested that the State should regulate again. Is that toodirigiste? Would it be the right way to proceed? My paper suggests that to have one regulator is too isolationist because all decisions rest on one person's shoulders. A regulatory commission with, say, three regulators is a better way to proceed. Accountability is then required. That is not to take from the excellent regulators working at present. Etain Doyle and Tom Reeves are highly competent. Nevertheless, a debate on regulatory changes is required, otherwise we will fail in the job we have to do.

Senator Quinn wondered if people have embraced what needs to be done. I do not think so. Reference was made to the Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas and the need for Departments to fully embrace change. Only a few Departments are fully on-line for dealing with customers or with consumers' questions. Senator Quinn's mention of the six week blitz in Singapore was very interesting. I and my officials will be discussing that kind of blitz. A recent report showed we are broadly in line with Singapore but reports change and doctors differ. The Senator's contribution was very thought provoking.

Senator Gibbons referred to the population structure and what he had seen in his research position of those who were and were not willing to embrace the new ways. I have found that people of a more mature age have seen it all and are ready for the new technology. Young people are great – they have no scales on their eyes and they get on with it. Senator O'Dowd referred to the impatience of his family members with getting on with things. They do not understand why everyone is not as enthusiastic as they are.

Mention was made of a possible social chasm and the need to use the sub-post offices. We must be the first in this area; there is no prize for second place. Second place is "also ran" in any sense, but in this game it means failure. First place is the one to go for.

Senator Tom Fitzgerald surprised me. I know the Senator well. My husband and I holiday in County Kerry and we often meet the Senator and his lovely wife.

I will not sing – that is for 2 o'clock in the morning at the half door, as the Senator well knows. I did not know the Senator's interest was so extensive and long placed and that he uses the new technology so much. His comments were excellent. He referred to software and is a self-confessed addict. That is very good.

Senator Costello made very good points. The Bill to which he referred has nothing to do with this. The infrastructure for electronic commerce is the broadband. Global Crossing is laying £60 million worth of broadband across the country. We will soon tender for all of the companies which we hope will build the spurs to and from that. I share the Senator's concerns about the Broadcasting Bill and the Copyright and Related Rights Bill because they are all of a piece in this menu for change. However, it must be acknowledged that it is often not possible to knit together all the strands in given aspects of life in a satisfactory manner. There are only two Houses of the Oireachtas. The Senator is right to say that we can only move forward when all the components are in place in a practical fashion. He considers the provision dealing with the certification of service providers was loosely drafted. We can look at that and at the issue of penalties and encryption.

That covers most of the points raised. I like to take my own notes because the contributions stay in my mind. This debate is very important and the contributions were lively, informed, questioning, wondering, cautioning, demanding and challenging. I appreciate them.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 18 April 2000.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 12 o'clock next Tuesday. I remind the House that we will be dealing in private business with the Trinity College, Dublin and the University of Dublin (Charters and Letters Patent Amendment) Bill, 1997. We need a quorum to commence and to deal with votes that may arise.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 12 noon on Tuesday, 18 April 2000.