GOVERNMENT leaders from the world's industrialized nations jointly acknowledged this weekend that they are playing catch-up with private enterprise as it races to create a global information superhighway.
While representatives from the Group of Seven nations met for the first time to debate building and policing the world's computer network, three floors of manufacturers' displays nearby demonstrated that cyberspace travel was well under way without them.
Some 140 companies from around the world showed off products ranging from instant radio faxes and a palm-sized, cord-free computer that gives access to almost anything published on the Internet to a virtual-reality tour of the Vatican.
The market has leaped ahead of government in spreading images and information. Now, officials are struggling to figure out how quickly to deregulate Europe's public telecommunications industries and how to ensure equal access to new technologies.
''Can you explain why it has taken ministers 10 years to convene such a group on such a topic?'' former European Commission President Jacques Delors was asked at the opening press conference. ''What we have learned, we have learned by watching what's been developed in the market.''
Many of the business leaders and software developers attending this conference expressed doubts that governments could manage the development of the information superhighway.
''When the Internet was built 25 years ago, it was a very secure network for the US Defense Department. No one dreamed it would have 30 million users,'' said Michael Spindler, president of Apple Computer Inc.
From January to December 1991, 500 million bytes of data passed over the World Wide Web, he adds. In three months, from January to March 1993, 5 billion bytes; on one day (May 1, 1994), 10 billion bytes; and in six hours (on Nov. 10, 1994), 13 billion bytes.
''Governments shouldn't try to exercise control over these industries,'' added Mr. Spindler. ''What governments need to do is help remove barriers, protect intellectual property rights, and get into protection of privacy.''
High on the agenda for US business executives participating in this conference was the need to break the hold of public telecommunications monopolies, especially in Europe.
In Germany, for example, the telecommunications industry is undergoing privatization, and the government has committed to opening markets by the end of the century. But at present they are run as a monopoly.
''The fact is that government policies based on faulty assumptions that try to block change or protect the status quo have themselves been job destroyers,'' Vice President Al Gore told delegates, adding that the United States pledged to open its own barriers to foreign investment.
''For more than 60 years the US has had limited restrictions on foreign investment in certain telecommunication services,'' he said. ''We are going to change, and change this year. Whether by new law or new regulation, we intend to open foreign investment in telecommunications services in the United States for companies of all countries who have opened their own markets.''
New industries will require heavy private investment, said a European source close to these discussions. ''Without deregulation in Europe, that investment will not be forthcoming.''
In their concluding statement, G-7 ministers made no commitments on these points but agreed on broad general principles, including promoting competition, encouraging private investment, defining an adaptable regulatory framework, and providing open access to networks.
Also discussed was the European Union's hottest issue: how large a role governments should play in regulating the cultural content of new information flows. Before the conference, French officials urged strong language to ensure cultural and linguistic diversity. This language was softened in talks leading up to the final document.
Participants emphasized that this was the first time government and business leaders talked about a global strategy to manage new information technologies.
''Never before have the captains of industry and government gotten together to discuss a shared vision of human enrichment based on electronic communications,'' says Marcelino Oreja, European commissioner for communication, culture, and audiovisual policy.
''But we need to ensure that there is not a widening gap between the information rich and the information poor,'' he says.
''Access to basic telephone is far from a reality in many parts of the world,'' said Thabo Mbeki, executive deputy president of South Africa, the only invited guest from the so-called developing world.
''More than half of humanity has never made a telephone call,'' he explained. ''There are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in sub-Saharan Africa. Given these disparities, to bring the developing world onto the information superhighway constitutes a colossal challenge.''