Electronic Signatures Gaining Momentum on Capitol Hill

A bill introduced late last week in the U.S. House of Representatives by Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia.) could give the use of electronic signatures in e-commerce Congressional backing. The Electronic Signatures in the Global and National Commerce Act, or E-SIGN, would make very little substantive change in the way electronic commerce is currently conducted but would put into official language the U.S. government’s support for promoting secure transactions over the Internet.

The bill also specifically addresses the online trading business, making electronic signatures and records officially, legally acceptable for transactions in the highly regulated U.S. securities industry.

Bliley argues that questions surrounding the legality of electronic signatures pose one of the biggest barriers to further growth of electronic commerce. “This bill fixes this problem by ensuring electronic signatures carry the same legal protections and guarantees as written signatures,” he said in a Commerce Committee statement.

Computer Hands Pledge Support

The bill quickly won the support of major Internet and computer companies such as Microsoft Corp., America Online and IBM, according to a Reuters report. The online community particularly supports the bill’s attempt to promote the use of online security measures without endorsing any one particular technology. In that way, the bill differs from one introduced three weeks ago by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona). That measure would direct the National Institutes of Standards and Technology to set a U.S. standard for data encryption.

Bliley’s bill is the fourth e-commerce bill introduced in the past eight weeks. At the same time, the European Union is also examining measures to facilitate electronic commerce, particularly as a way to break down trade barriers between countries, according to published reports. In addition to encouraging e-commerce in the United States, Bliley’s bill would direct the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to promote the same principles abroad.

E-Commerce Bills Abound

In addition to Bliley’s bill and McCain’s similar measure, a pair of companion bills making their way through the House and Senate deal specifically with electronic signatures. The House Millennium Digital Commerce Act, introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) in late March, would clarify the legal status of electronic commerce transactions and push the federal government to conduct more transactions electronically to make the government more efficient and cost effective. With a bill from Bliley saying largely the same thing, the two House bills will likely be merged at some point to create one cohesive e-commerce bill for a full floor vote.

A Senate bill carrying the same name as Eshoo’s was introduced the same day by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan.) and co-sponsored by five others including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi.) and Commerce Committee Chairman McCain. It would also codify the government’s support for electronic signatures.

More information on these and other Internet-related bills can be found at the U.S. Congress’ Web site: thomas.loc.gov.

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