UK E-commerce bill comes under fire

The long-awaited draft e-commerce bill was finally published today amidst a stream of criticism.

Initially conceived to promote e-commerce in the UK the bill has come in for heavy criticism from privacy groups, industry watchers and a Trade and Industry select committee.

As a result the bill has undergone a series of delays and alterations, with controversial plans to give security forces mandatory rights over encryption keys being dropped from the final bill. The watered-down version still weighs in favour of security forces, giving them the power to demand decryption keys from anyone they suspect of holding them. Failure to hand over keys could result in a two-year jail sentence.

Attempts to make licensing of e-commerce firms mandatory have also been dropped and companies are now invited to license themselves with government approved bodies on a voluntary basis. This follows damning criticism from the Trade and Industry select committee, describing initial attempts to make licensing compulsory as "not fit to be written into law".

The mainstay of the e-commerce bill is plans to give digital signatures the same legal sway as paper ones. Caspar Bowden of the Foundation for Information Policy Research believes the government may introduce measures to discriminate in favour of signatures certified by government approved organisations. "In future, if you complain to your bank and say 'I never signed that' they could say 'its an approved signature, you're liable,'" he said.

Critics claim the bill also gives ministers the power to introduce encryption control through the back door. Despite government assurances that key escrow is now dead, Bowden believes it may come at a later date. "Electronic commerce is being seriously harmed by the attempt to tie electronic snooping provisions in with this bill," he said. "Making wiretapping a condition of the licensing of electronic commerce will just undermine confidence and drive business away."

Thomas Power, chairman of e-commerce education portal Ecademy accused the government of "pure ignorance" in its attempts to understand the e-commerce landscape. "The government sees e-commerce as a technical issue rather than a mechanism for economic growth," he said. "They have become bogged down in the technical hurdles rather than the benefits of e-commerce. It has become a political agenda and the delays are slowing down the rate of economic growth in the UK."

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