WASHINGTON - Ten of the country's top computer executives Thursday urged governments to help connect people to the Internet. And they warned that public policy issues threaten to stymie the "incalculable benefits" of a networked world.
Lars Nyberg, chairman of NCR Corp., said local, state and national governments should set a goal of providing two-way Internet connections by 2003 so that people can file taxes, obtain licenses and take care of other government-related matters online.
"All governments must see themselves as a key catalyst for bringing the networked world about," he said.
Such a world would drive economic productivity and solve countless problems, providing "benefits that are vast, incalculable," said IBM chairman Louis Gerstner Jr.
Mr. Gerstner and the other nine executives of the Computer Systems Policy Project released on Thursday a brief report called "Living in the Networked World" (available at www.cspp.org) urging governments to recognize that Internet communication is transforming the global economy.
"We are running a very real risk of derailing the single most important institutional driver any of us has ever seen," Mr. Gerstner said.
"There is a wall out there waiting for us to hit it. It's not a technology barrier," he said. "This wall that we have to avoid, the thing that could stop all this right in its tracks, is a failure of public policy leaders to reach an understanding ... that we are dealing with a medium that transcends international boundaries, cultures and languages."
Just Wednesday, Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates used similar terms to describe a federal judge's decision ordering his company broken in two.
But Mr. Gerstner and the other executives would not comment Thursday on the Microsoft decision, saying it was not a public policy question.
"We did not address it [antitrust policy] in our report," Mr. Gerstner said.
Instead, they urged the federal government to relax national security controls over the export of high-speed computers.
They urged the Senate to pass legislation normalizing trade relations with China.
They said government and industry both have a role in protecting consumer privacy, but they said solutions should be pursued through dialogue before any new laws are written.
The report says international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization "will become more important than ever."
Carly Fiorina, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., said consumers should be able to decide how information about them is used and should know who is collecting it.
"We would absolutely expect government to be engaged with us" on privacy protection, she said.
The Computer Systems Policy Project membership includes Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Computer Corp. of Round Rock, Texas, and Michael Capellas, president and CEO of Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston.
Mr. Dell, speaking at a National Press Club luncheon, echoed the group's cautious views on taxation of goods and services purchased over the Internet.
"Increasingly we have a global economy," he said. "And if we are going to have a new tax system, we have to consider that all products are not going to go from state to state, but internationally."
Group member Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel Corp., told Congress on Tuesday that goods and services purchased over the Internet should face the same sales tax regime applied to store purchases.
Mr. Dell agreed with Dr. Grove, however, that the thousands of different sales tax regimes now in effect across the country need to be "radically simplified" if they are ever applied to the Internet.