The government has finally published the draft of its proposed e-commerce legislation. Industry has broadly welcomed the bill, with a few notable exceptions. This legislation is still only in draft, however: it will not be brought before Parliament until November and is not likely to become law until next spring at the earliest.
In part, this was the fault of the Tories, who, for shallow and ridiculous reasons, refused to allow the bill to be introduced in this parliamentary session. But the draft itself has taken many months to complete, as the government has dithered over issues such as encryption. The Home Office wanted stronger encryption regulation and a key escrow policy; the Department of Trade and Industry feared this would prove unworkable in practice and inhibit commerce. In the end, the DTI won.
One of the government's own most loyal supporters, ex-minister Peter Mandelson, himself criticised the handling of the draft and the consequent delays the bill has suffered. He told reporters that the government had been too slow to drop the key escrow idea, and the appointment of an e-envoy (Mandelson's own idea, aired last November) next January is not soon enough.
He is right. The delays highlight the difference between government time and Internet time. Businesses have to dance to Internet time these days, which means moving faster than ever before to react to new commercial threats, and to respond to customers immediately rather than putting them off. People who don't get instant response from a Web site quickly leave and go to a rival Web site; if the government was a Web site, we'd all have left it long ago.
Late though it is, the bill is generally a good thing. Key escrow has been dropped, although there is still a requirement that systems administrators can be made to decrypt encrypted files on demand from the police, or face a two-year jail sentence.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the proposed legislation is its recognition of digital signatures. Allowing digital signatures to carry legal force is vital to the future success of e-commerce, letting businesses carry out transactions electronically which at present still have to be done on paper to be legal.
Technically, digital signatures still have a long way to come. Strong security is needed to guard against hacking and possible fraud. Standards must be agreed on to ensure we can all read and send such signatures in the same way.
Now we know the government's plans for digital signatures, companies can move ahead on solving the technical problems.
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