EU telecom ministers have agreed unanimously a common position on a directive regulating the way electronic signatures can be used, after resolving earlier disputes over how specific technology requirements should be set, diplomats said.
The proposed directive aims to ease the use of electronic signatures, contribute to their legal recognition and would establish a legal framework for an EU market in electronic signatures and certain certification services, they said.
"We have achieved minimum standards for electronic signatures and minimum rules regarding the liability of service providers," said one diplomat.
An official ministerial statement said security was one of the key stumbling blocks in the directive, but a solution acceptable to all had been found.
Further objectives of the directive are to promote the interoperability of electronic signature products and to build trust in electronic signatures, the statement said.
The common position follows a neutral approach as far as the various technologies and services capable of authenticating data electronically are concerned...and takes into account the global nature of the Internet, it said.
In order not to slow down innovation and the development of certification services, the common position stipulates that their providers should in general be free to offer such services without prior authorisation.
Service providers would also be free to follow voluntary accreditation schemes to further develop their services towards the levels of trust, security and quality demanded by the market, the statement said.
The common position also states that an electronic signature should be considered equivalent to a hand written signature if it meets a certain number of conditions, such as one based on a qualified certificate and created by a secure signature creation device.
The common position also includes harmonised liability rules for certification service providers so as to ensure legal security and predictability for both providers and consumers.
Service providers will also be requested to respect data protection legislation and individual privacy.
The directive will not apply to electronic signatures used exclusively within closed systems. Member states have 18 months to transpose after European Parliament approval and the directive has come into force.
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