DTI opens second consultation on e-signatures

The government has another go at making electronic signatures legal, but the end isn't in sight yet
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

A new discussion document on electronic signatures has been released by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), after the UK government failed to meet the July 2001 deadline for implementation of the EU Electronic Signatures Directive.

The release of the second consultation paper has been delayed since July, through the need to relate provisions contained within the EU Directive to English and Scottish law. The new document, published on Friday, includes a summary of the last consultation, and a draft of the proposed regulations. Industry and government representatives have until 12 February to respond to the proposals.

"The legislative timetable is couched in the replies that we receive from the consultation," said the DTI spokesman. "We will be looking at what comes back, before we decide on the way forward."

E-signatures are designed to allow electronic authentication to be as legally binding as a handwritten signature, and are expected to allow a greater variety of e-commerce transactions to take place, including the signing of legal documents over the Internet. However, the legislation is proving technically complex and difficult to finalise.

The UK government enforced the Electronic Communications Act in 2000, which addressed some, but not all, of the EU provisions. A consultation was opened in March 2001 to address aspects of the Directive that had been missed by the Act. But the e-commerce minister, Douglas Alexander, announced in response to a parliamentary question in July 2001 that the consultation had "raised some issues", particularly in relation to the implementation of the data protection requirements in Article 8 of the Directive.

Under the new draft provisions, the secretary of state will establish and maintain a register of approved digital certificate providers in the UK, and will decide the circumstances in which a provider is liable for breaching the terms of the certificate.

Earlier this month, the British government admitted that it had missed the EU deadline for implementation of the E-Commerce Directive.

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