Summary of the Conference on 'Electronic Commerce: Net Benefit for Australia?'

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 8 November 1998

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1998

These comments are an edited transcript of an invited summary of the proceedings of the Conference, presented as part of the closing session

This document is at


'Electronic Commerce: Net Benefit for Australia?' was the theme of the 1998 Information Industry Outlook Conference, run by the Australian Computer Society in Canberra on 7 November 1998. It was a rapid-fire, one-day event, with 20-30 minute slots for each speaker. This ensured a substantial quantity and diversity of material. In almost all cases, full papers were published, in hard copy and on the web.

I was invited to provide a brief verbal summary of the event, as a prelude to the brief panel session involving all speakers. This document captures my memory of what I said, and meant to say, during that summary.


Review of the Papers

The Conference was opened by the Chief Minister of the A.C.T., Kate Carnell. She sold the audience on the notion of the 'Clever Capital'. This is not a reference to George Soros, but to the capital city, the capital (telecommunications and computing infrastructure), and the human capital (Canberra's very high numbers of I.T. professionals, very strong education and income levels, and levels of home-ownership of computers and modems and Internet usage double the national average).

An outline was provided by David Williamson, from the Commonwealth Government's Information Industry Task Force, of a recently-published Report on the Australian I.T. industry's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. See 'Stocktake of Australia's Information Industries' (October 1998).

The next two papers addressed aspects of identity authentication. Stephen Wilson provided an outline of the current situation in Australia relating to digital signatures, certificates, public key infrastructure (PKI) generally, the Public Key Authentication Framework (PKAF) in particular, and what he argues is the inadequacy of the Commonwealth's proposed National Authentication Authority (NAA). See 'Current Issues in the rollout of a National Authentication Framework'.

From Gaden's Lawyers, Adrian McCullagh approached authentication from the broader viewpoint of trust. He identified and examined a number of aspects of the notion, and ways in which confidence in identity could be established. See 'The establishment of 'TRUST' in the electronic commerce environment'.

The next two papers discussed impediments to take-up of electronic commerce. Anita Smith of Advantra argued that many of the concerns of consumers need to be "assuaged", because they are more perception than fact. She made an impassioned plea for more enthusiasm, belief and personal example. See 'What's the Hold-up? - Real versus Perceived Risks In On-line Commerce'.

This was followed by an examination of specific barriers holding up adoption by SMEs, by Ric Jentsch of the University of Canberra, who argued the case for care in implementation of EC by and for SMEs. See 'Getting the Balance Right'.

The procession of intermediaries and pundits was interrupted by Peter Barnes, now of the University of South Australia, who presented a case study of a web-site that has extended the reach of a ticketing agency. Peter provided a factual history, an outline of issues that arose, and some approaches to resolving them. See 'Online Retail Commerce Case Study' and Bass Online.

From Deloittes, Vanessa Harvey urged that Australia should leverage off our local strengths, especially in the area of content-provision, and our advantage of not being American.

The thorny issue of measuring the success of electronic services delivery (ESD) was considered by Ross Kelso of CIRCIT. He focussed on government agencies, national objectives, and the core concept of 'effective use'. See 'Monitoring the Effective Use of Online Services' and

Senator Kate Lundy (Labor, ACT) showed us her true colours with the world's first pink-backgrounded PowerPoint presentation. In both her personal role and as Opposition spokesperson on I.T. matters, she pleaded for equitable access to the information infrastructure, to ensure that existing disadvantages aren't seriously exacerbated, and that new ones aren't created. See 'Information Industry Development - with a Social conscience'.

Conference Chair Tom Worthington closed the Conference with a paper on ways in which Australia in general, and the A.C.T. in particular, could apply lessons learnt from the success of the I.T. industry surrounding Cambridge (U.K.). See 'Building Arcadia: Emulating Cambridge's High Technology Industry Success in Australia'.


The Conference covered a lot of territory, and many important issues were raised. These comments are intended to identify matters that I felt were missing or insufficiently emphasised.

Generally, I felt that there was insufficient recognition of the revolutionary and revelationary impact of information technologies. Perhaps it was because it was a conference of information technologists, and we've all become inured to the hype of ongoing radical change. But we must not lose sight of the probability that the effect of the Internet and the services it enables can't be effectively projected, because they are causing fundamental shifts and discontinuities in the economy and society.

Reflecting that lack of excitement, I was disappointed that the discussion remained stuck in provider-consumer thinking, whereas the information infrastructure we have today is inherently participative. It invites re-use, and it undermines the very ideas of intellectual property and illegal appropriation. We've all grown up in an era of broadcast media, targetted one-way at the masses, and we're still thinking in that mode, when what we have available to us is a fundamentally interactive medium. Our physical selves are in the post-industrial, information era; but our mind-set is stuck in industrial-age thinking, modelling industry as a production-chain, when it needs to contain loops, more like 'bees around a honey pot'.

To steal/co-opt a format originated by Wired magazine:

	provider-consumer	participation
	broadcast mode		interactive mode
	production-chain	bees around a honey-pot
	information ownership	information sharing
	stealing ideas		co-opting ideas

Another concern was the dominance of the interpretation of the key term in the conference's title 'benefit' as 'economic benefit, with only limited and occasional attention to social, cultural and political health, change and maturation.

Does that bias matter? Isn't economic wellbeing paramount? Even if social wellbeing is regarded as being ultimately more important, surely economic growth has primacy, because it's only a rich community that can afford to focus on social factors?

I assert the opposite: electronic community and cyberculture are fundamental. Electronic commerce will continue to falter, while-ever corporates seek to dominate, acquire, and exploit the Internet.

There was a movement during 1997-98, associated with Hagel & Armstrong's book 'Net Gain', which sought to apply (or subvert or capture) the concept of 'electronic community', and use it as a means of accelerating consumer adoption of electronic commerce. It's failed. The present conventional wisdom is the idea of 'portals'. This 'idea in good standing' will stagger along for some months yet, and next year some new consultant will achieve a web-year's fame for inventing yet another fashion-item.

Meanwhile, the slow take-up has resulted in failure of some interesting initiatives, particularly in the electronic payments arena. PCs still don't come with smart card-readers as standard equipment; chip-based SVCs continue to be piloted with limited success; Mondex in particular is making little headway; SET is stalling; and the great hope for e-cash, Digicash, has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

To achieve the breakthrough, businesses have to discover what cyberculture is. Only by building on that understanding will they be able to appreciate the behaviour of net-consumers, and hence devise principles and practices that match consumers' expectations and needs, and hence fulfil the marketer's own objectives.

Some time ago, I warned regulators about the pitfalls of attempting to regulate what they don't understand. As an antidote, I proposed that they first develop a deep appreciation of Internet aphorisms. I suggest the same for Internet marketers. A starting-point is to dig into the complexities of the multi-faceted tenet 'information wants to be free'.

Here are two quick examples of the kind of difference that cyberculture insight can make to the approach adopted by Internet marketers:

One specific theme of the Conference that I was dissatisfied with was the dicussions about authentication. The problem was certainly not the quality of the papers or thinking; but their narrow focus.

I agree that 'identity authentication' needs attention, especially in the area of open, business-to-business electronic commerce. But identity authentication has seriously threatening overtones, and these inevitably cause disquiet among small business and individuals.

Adrian McCullagh used with approval the following quotation from Fukuyama: "Hierarchies are necessary because all people cannot be trusted at all times ... They must ultimately be coerced ...". This is utterly authoritarian, reflecting the social engineer's or technocrat's view that they know best, and that the 'internalised ethical rules' (Fukuyama's term) which they express or recognise are those that are appropriate for society. This pattern of thinking has not been a tendency greatly evident in 'advanced western' societies, although it does fit to the world-view of the dominant cliques in many, less free countries (Clarke 1994).

Reflecting this attitude, there are ongoing attempts in both government and business to convert hitherto anonymous transactions (like cash payments, counter-visits, and telephone-enquiries) into identified transactions. The purpose is to generate even more intensive data trails, to integrate them using common identification schemes, and to use these as a basis for data surveillance of the population through their digital personae.

Given the associations that 'identity authentication' is encumbered with, it's hardly surprising that people are staying away in droves. The key to encouraging public confidence in EC is to focus instead on alternatives to 'identity authentication', whose existence was unfortunately not even acknowledged by the presenters. These include:

These are addressed in Clarke (1996).

Given that I've spent some time pointing out gaps in the conference programme, I should stress that I thoroughly enjoyed the task of closely reading and listening to a valuable set of papers and ensuing discussions, despite the fact that it kept me away from 2 hours' soccer viewing on SBS.


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Created: 8 November 1998

Last Amended: 8 November 1998

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