The bureaucrats of the European Union seem finally to have woken up to the largely untapped potential of the internet - with regulatory proposals to bar national restrictions on e-commerce, published last week, representing the first steps towards a single electronic market in Europe.
The directive proposes that online retailers will be regulated only by the laws of the country in which they are based, even if they are selling across all members states. This move coincided with an announcement by the UK Government of its intention to introduce a bill into Parliament to promote electronic commerce.
The proposed directive is fraught with problems and is unlikely to have an easy passage through the European Parliament and Council of Ministers, but all this legislative activity does signal a new willingness to sweep away the national boundaries that have contributed to Europe's snail-pace entry to cyberspace.
While the US is currently on its second lap around the Internet circuit, Europe has barely left the starting blocks. Taking e-commerce as a measurement, US shoppers are likely to spend around $2.3 billion surfing the cyber shopping malls this Christmas, while Europeans are likely to spend just 5% of that figure. There are a number of reasons for this reticence.
Connection costs in Europe remain higher than in the US, partly due to the slow pace of deregulation. A majority of transmission bandwidths are insufficient for the medium, making connections slower, plus the cost of computers in Europe continues to outstrip prices in the States. This is aside from the linguistic problems facing anyone wanting to broaden the European internet audience.
While the political machinery is currently focused on the movement of cash rather than communications, the proposed regulations will have a significant impact on the world of 'terrestrial' PR.
The increased commercial use of the internet means that companies will become more familiar with the internet as a medium and, by default, as a tool for marketing and dissemination of information. The increasing provision of information on-line will in turn, have a profound impact on the nature of traditional public relations activity. Practitioners will have to move from being purveyors of information, which will be readily available at the click of a mouse, and concentrate on developing their role as strategists and as reputation managers.
As the barriers break down at a commercial level, European operators are going to have to be prepared for the fact that the provision of information and strategic consultancy are likely to develop into distinctly different disciplines within the public relations remit.