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Government e-tailing exaggerated

Take away T-bills, and the rest is government as usual.

I’m getting so tired of these studies practically commissioned by industry groups and planted in the news to cause an artificial stir. Recently, it was the study commissioned by a right-wing group that calls itself Citizens Against Government Waste. The study suggests that privacy legislation will cost e-tailers trillions of dollars over a period of years. OK. Analogously, EPA regulations preventing chemical companies from dumping toxic wastes into rivers has cost Dow Chemical and its competitors trillions of dollars over the years. I would have to say the cost of the regulations is worth it.

Today’s news has the second story in as many days on the fact that the government is the largest e-tailer on the Net. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the U.S. Government conducted more than $3.6 billion in online sales in 2000, while–the Net’s second largest e-tailer–conducted only $2.8 billion last year.

Shocking headline. At least until you read a little ways down in the story. First, the Government has 164 sites that conduct commerce. Only one of them does more than nominal commerce. The U.S. Treasury Department sold $3.3 billion in U.S. savings bonds, T-bills, and notes in the past year. That means that the other 163 sites conducted $300 million in commerce last year. We’re talking about license fees, taxes collected, and auctions for merchandize seized by the IRS, etc.

So what’s the story? The story is the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) finds all this commerce “shocking.” Why? Because some of its members, such as Intuit, do commerce that competes with the government. Intuit makes a tax program that lets users file taxes online for a fee. This past year, the IRS developed a similar service for next to nothing. So the CCIA needs a shocking headline to support its members who compete with the government.

I have to admit that I did a whole series of ReleVents that were generally positive towards the CCIA. I usually agree with it, but not on this issue. I consider it a good sign that the government has 164 sites that allow its citizens to transact governmental business without needing to wait in line downtown. It’s called healthy e-government, and it will make citizenship so much more comfortable for so many Americans, especially those with disabilities that make it hard to get downtown and wait in line.

It’s a good thing. Quit whining about it and get into a different business!

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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