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.