Twenty-two Years of e-Commerce

A handful of us joined with Tim Berners-Lee to start the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT in December 1994. None of us at the time saw the potential for eCommerce. Most of the focus was on techniques for formatting web pages and on various other content related issues. Jim Clark, founder of Netscape, did see the eCommerce potential and he also realized one of the biggest inhibitors was the U.S. Government regulation of encryption, a key tool for making eCommerce secure. Jim and a handful of us started the Global Internet Project as a public policy group to gain more awareness about encryption and urge governments around the world to resist the temptation to regulate the Internet. I was the Chairman of the GIP for about five years.

There were many other complexities looming under the surface which could have dramatically stalled the growth of eCommerce. Collectively it was a hodgepodge of sticky issues — like non-U.S. countries who objected to the U.S. control over key elements of the Internet infrastructure — but the biggest issue was a lack of vision. There was no consistent framework for eCommerce which could enable businesses to move forward with it. One of the first of the Fortune 500 to put a stake in the ground was IBM Corporation where Lou Gerstner said in 1997 the web is not for surfing, it is for business transactions. IBM later introduced the term e-Business. The gamble being taken by IBM and many others was the Internet would become internationally politicized and potentially regulated to a standstill.

Fortunately, there was a person in a high place in the U.S. government who would help solve many of the tough issues and enable President Clinton to announce a “Framework for Global Electronic Commerce” in the summer of 1997. It was a huge accomplishment for which we should all be eternally grateful. The person who lead the effort was Ira Magaziner, a top aide at the White House. Ira is best known for his efforts to create a major American healthcare program. His effort got attacked from every political direction and eventually fell. Unlike healthcare, the Internet was not well understood by politicians and they stayed out of the way as Ira solved many of the key issues. He then traveled around the world enlightening key government leaders. The rest is history.

At the 10-year anniversary conference in 2007, Ira modestly said the event was “a good reminder of how far we have come and of how much opportunity still remains”. Ken Wasch, then head of the Software and Information Industry Association, said “Electronic commerce has provided a significant engine for the growth of the global economy and has sparked the delivery of a multitude of innovative products and services.”

It was my privilege at the conference to serve on a panel moderated by Michael Mandel, chief economist of BusinessWeek. The panelists were Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary, Department of Homeland Security; Dan Burton, Senior Vice President, at Salesforce.com and former President of the Council on Competitiveness; Jamie Estrada, Assistant Secretary (Acting) at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Ira Magaziner, who is now Chairman of the Clinton Foundation, and myself.

I delivered the closing keynote, which I called “The Future of the Internet“. I asserted the Internet has grown to it’s infancy and we have so far only seen five percent of what the Internet has in store for our business and personal lives. Keep in mind this speech was 12 years ago, and the iPhone had just started shipping the week of the conference. I may have been the only there who had one. A video of Ira Magaziner’s talk is here and a video of my closing speech is here. When you hear my remarks about the future, please remember the speech was in 2007. Amazon’s stock was $30 and its profit was 2% of sales.