The E-commerce Bill: Incomplete but better than nothing at all ?

As an e-commerce software house we certainly hope so. Removing the need forKey Escrow is going to help a lot but we must also find a way of boostingcustomer confidence in the security.

Escrow seems to confirm the government’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’approach. They were all for it to begin with, and it took a massive lobbyingeffect from the IT Industry and civil liberty campaigners to get it takenout of the Bill.

It is good that lobbying can be effective. But it is a shame they did notconsult the industry in more detail first. It is encouraging to see thatpolicy can be changed by industry opinion. If anyone in government isreading this – lets move forward with digital signatures.

But how can the industry influence the e-commerce bill in a positive way?The likely provisions on digital signatures meet the criteria for securityand validation.

We confidently provide our own credit card details when using the net if itis a secure site but currently a digital signature on a document isvalueless. We would like the government to put in place a central securesystem for signatures that works the way that secure on-line credit cardauthorisation works.

When digital signatures become legal we believe the take-up will really kickoff. We presume that great strides are being taken by the government becauseof their desire for electronic submission of personal tax returns.

There may be consumer inertia due to security fears but the new e-commerceBill should be able to conquer that. The government needs to establish alegal framework to guarantee that Britain will be the best place in theworld to electronically trade and then back that up with lots of goodpublicity to show how much they trust trading on the web.

The draft Electronic Communications Bill has now been released and there hasbeen a mixed reaction. It is widely felt that the bill is long overdue butthat finally we have a framework. There is also unrest that the role ofe-envoy remains unfilled, although Alex Allan the new e-envoy is very keento start his new role in January.

We see the e-envoy as the motivator ofe-commerce in the UK, promoting education of all businesses and warningabout pitfalls. There is further concern that the draft is now running solate, that Parliament may not be able to pass the legislation in the currentsession.

Conflicting opinions are in the areas of privacy and key-escrow lawenforcement. The draft proposes rather draconian two-year prison sentencesfor individuals who do not provide keys to encrypted data when they arerequested to do so by a law-enforcement agency. After much delay, therequirement to implement key-escrow has been taken off the initiallegislation.

The draft does, however, provide for Key Escrow to be re- introduced later- avoiding the need to pass through Parliament. Libertarian groups appear tobe even more annoyed about this loophole than the original proposals, andhave labelled it “key escrow by the back door”.

The e-commerce bill is attempting to put a legal framework in place thatequates to centuries of legislation connected to conventional commerce. Itcan never be perfect legislation when the technology it is attempting tocontrol is still evolving at such a rapid pace.

Perhaps the most optimisticcourse that can be hoped for is that a structure should be implemented thatwill enable further changes when needed.

But e-commerce is exploding so fastthat changes need to be part of the entire parliamentary procedure. It maybe an incomplete law but it is certainly an improvement over having nothingin place. We await the Bill with positive anticipation.

Paul Wellings is head of media at Access Accounting

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