Coalition promotes rules for Web sales; Six U.S. companies join effort to boost consumer confidence; Electronic commerce


A half-dozen major U.S. companies announced yesterday that they will work with a Washington attorney for Baltimore-based Piper & Marbury LLP to increase consumer confidence worldwide in shopping on the Internet.

The companies, America Online Inc., Dell Computers Inc., International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp., Time Warner Inc. and Visa U.S.A. Inc., want to establish a "predictable and stable" legal environment worldwide to ease international transactions on the World Wide Web, said Ron Plesser, the Piper attorney who will coordinate the group's efforts.

Rules vary by country when it comes to making purchases on the Internet. In theory, Plesser said, consumers and merchants could be subject to the laws of more than 100 countries and hundreds of local jurisdictions.

The goal of the coalition, which calls itself the Electronic Commerce and Consumer Protection Group, is to standardize rules as much as possible.

"There seems to be a need for businesses to come together and to create some best industries' practices," Plesser said. "The goal is to set up rules that responsible companies in most countries will deal with."

Plesser, who expects the group to grow slightly, said American Express Co. and AT&T; Corp. are interested in joining. He said the group is also seeking as members international companies based outside the United States.

"The creation of the Electronic Commerce and Consumer Protection Group is exactly the kind of private sector initiative we need," U.S. Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley said in a statement.

"The group's members are using their resources to collaborate on the development of innovative approaches to enhance consumer confidence online," Daley said, "which is essential to fulfill the potential of the digital economy."

Consumer groups have urged people who buy products over the Internet to patronize sites that offer privacy and security.

Rana Silver, a spokeswoman for Consumer Reports, which is published by the Consumers Union, said the magazine has not detected more fraud online than in retail businesses.

"We certainly haven't heard anything more than you would hear from someone who goes to a restaurant and later finds that a receipt from a Visa card has been taken from the trash," Silver said.

The industry group joins an assortment of others working on the same issue, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Better Business Bureau OnLine.

The industry group, which plans to confer with leaders of consumer groups, is likely to encounter cultural barriers and an assortment of legal questions, Plesser said.

For instance, he said, France wants sites accessible in that country to be translated into French. "U.S. companies shouldn't be subject to prosecution because they transacted business with a French person in English," Plesser said.

Another issue might be advertising. Plesser said many countries prohibit comparative advertising, for example an ad that might compare a Ford Taurus with a Toyota Camry. "Truthful comparative advertising is illegal in some European countries," he said.

The group hopes to create standards the way online services such as America Online have created a set or rules for their vendors. The idea is to make electronic commerce as seamless as possible, Plesser said.

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