The US Treasury Department is negotiating with US Congress over legislation that would allow electronic signatures to be used instead of hand-signed documents in financial transactions.
The US House of Representatives and the Senate have each passed separate bills dealing with digital signatures and will send legislation to a joint House-Senate committee to reconcile the differences.
Both pieces of legislation are intended to give transactions authorised with digital signatures the same protections as those signed on paper. However, the bills have major differences.
The Senate bill, known as the Third Millennium Electronic Commerce Act, would allow digital signatures to stand only on contracts. The House bill, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, covers a number of other transactions. For example, a person could sign a power of attorney electronically.
Consumer groups argue that the House bill goes too far and warn that it would override state and federal laws that require notices to be provided on paper. This would harm consumers who do not have computer access, they said. The Senate has already scaled back its bill.
Gary Gensler, the Treasury Department's Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, expressed concerns. He said the legislation needs to be changed to ensure that consumers give full consent to electronic signatures and that records can not be altered after the transaction is completed.
"A good digital signature bill will ensure that consumer protections in the electronic world are equivalent to those in the paper world. With some modest changes the goal is well within reach," said Gensler.
He suggested that many of the concerns could be eliminated if Congress agrees to allow regulatory agencies interpret provisions and provide input on how they apply to their respective industries.
Winn Schwartau, author of the forthcoming book CyberShock, said digital signatures would soon become commonplace. "The technology is there. It's just a matter of getting people to sign up. People will be able to save a lot of money so they'll sign up," he said.
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