ACCOUNTANCY AGE E-BILL UPDATE: UK could be on its way to becoming electronic trading world leader

And the dream took a step towards reality last week following the announcement that MPs had at long last given the E-commerce Bill the thumbs up in the House of Commons, following a series of formal consultations.

The Bill – which sets the ground rules for the expanding world of e-commerce – is due to become law in April, and according to the Department of Trade and Industry which has prepared the Bill, that date will certainly be met.

The main purpose of the Bill is to help build confidence in electronic commerce, and the technology underlying it, by providing legal recognition of electronic signatures and the process under which they are verified.

A spokesman for the DTI this week confirmed it was on course to gain royal ascent in April and they expected the procedure to be ‘fairly straightforward’ from now on.

In getting this far there has been a raft of controversies. And even as the Bill received its third reading from MPs last week, the Tories claimed their changes to the legislation had saved businesses from a ‘nightmare’.

As the Bill was heading towards the House of Lords, shadow technology minister Alan Duncan said the original ‘heavy, cumbersome piece of legislation’ had been ‘dramatically slimmed down and improved’ because of his party.

He added that they had removed ‘draconian’ powers of access to e-mails and encrypted material and concluded the final ‘short and simple’ measure was ‘a world away from the IT nightmare proposed by the government when it first published this Bill’.

But such is the government’s ambition to make the UK the e-commerce centre of the globe, it even set out an aspiring programme of its own.

This programme includes making all government services available electronically by 2008, and undertaking 90% of its own routine procurement of goods electronically by 2001.

It also aimed to show it meant e-business by prominently featuring the E-commerce Bill in the Queen’s Speech and swiftly presenting the full Bill to the Commons in November.

Meanwhile e-minister Patricia Hewitt has gone on record saying she ‘hoped the rest of Europe would follow the UK’s lead’.

Hewitt said: ‘This historic Bill will help make the UK the best place in the world to do electronic business. We are determined to get e-commerce law right and get it in fast and we are on course to meet our original target for Royal Assent by April 2000.’

This is a message the Treasury has continued to reiterate.

However, she added that a number of UK laws would have to be modified to make sure businesses can compete in the electronic market place.

An important element of the proposed legislation concerns electronic signatures on electronic documents – which will be explicitly recognised in law as being equivalent to conventional signatures on paper documents.

Encryption is the process of turning normal text into a series of letters and/or numbers which can only be deciphered by someone who has the correct password or key.

It is also used to prevent others reading confidential, private or commercial data – for example an e-mail sent over the Internet or a file stored on floppy disk.

The government plans to adjust existing legislation stipulating the use of paper documentation so that signed electronic documents become acceptable substitutes.

Under the legislation, the government will maintain a register of those providers who have been independently quality-assured. The government also wants to ensure the growth of e-commerce doesn’t lead to an e-crime wave.

And it seems the majority of the e-commerce community has reacted positively to the revised Bill. Only time will tell if the law is introduced as planned.


AXA group chief executive, Mark Wood, has welcomed an agenda agreed by the EC, which aims to push through European e-commerce legislation by the end of the year.

The aim of the agenda is to quickly establish guidelines and infrastructure for Europe, in a bid to prevent the US charging ahead in the Internet economy.

It is understood EC officials want to pass seven directives and legislation including the selling of financial services and an online disputes settlement procedure for e-commerce and contractual law in Europe by the year end.

Despite concerns that the agenda is too ambitious, Wood welcomed the announcement and said the agenda would be testing but realistic.

He said: ‘There are not many impediments with these directives as they include issues such as electronic signatures and authentication which have been formulated in the banking rules for the last 20 years.

‘The end of the year target is practical and not terribly difficult.’

Consultations between the EU and member countries are set to take place over the next month in a bid to formulate the guidelines.

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