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Government e-commerce bill draws praise and fire

Blair administration to encourage e-commerce yet police will be able to override security measures

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The British government's crusade to get rid of hereditary peers, and the appearance of Jamie Lee Curtis in the Lords may have grabbed the headlines, but this does not diminish the importance of the proposed Electronic Commerce Bill outlined in yesterday's Queen's Speech. For some people in the industry it's enough that the government has finally recognised the importance of e-commerce. For others, the bill is a botched attempt to serve two masters. One the one hand, the bill sets out to legalise electronic signatures and encryption in an attempt to boost confidence in the Net. If the government is right, then this should help stimulate e-commerce not just between businesses, but also bring in individual consumers. "We are delighted that legislation will be introduced to promote electronic commerce," said Roger Till, director of e centre uk, an organisation which promotes e-commerce in Britain. "Widespread use of e-commerce depends on users having trust and confidence in the whole activity. This legislation, which will be a key to developing that trust, is needed now," he said. But there is a catch, and civil liberties groups have been quick to highlight the bill's get-out clause as yet another example of a government fudge. For although encryption will ensure greater security, this can be overrided if the police and security services obtain a warrant to intercept and decode electronic communications. It's like handing over your credit card PIN number, said one critic of the measure. At the ISP end of the business, David Furniss, sales and marketing director Demon, is lukewarm about the proposals. "In broad terms they're OK," he said, "but the government needs to make sure it gets the detail sorted out. "Some of the proposals are simplistic so I just hope that the government works with service providers to get this legislation right." But the government maintains that this is the way forward. In a written statement earlier this year that has form the basis of the bill, Barbara Roche outlined the government's policy and in particular, defended the right to intercept and decode e-mail. During 1996 and 1997, the lawful interception of communications lead to the seizure of nearly three tonnes of Class A drugs, and 112 tonnes of other drugs, with the combined street value of £600 million, she wrote. A white paper will be published next month and the bill is expected to be debated in the spring. The bill, which sets out a legal framework for e-commerce, is expected to become law in the summer. ® The Electronic Commerce Bill: key points

  • Provide the legal recognition of digital contracts and signatures
  • Provide the legal framework for licensing bodies offering cryptography services, known as Trusted Third Parties (TTPs)
  • Create Certification Authorities that would issue certificates for electronic signatures, confirming that people are who they say they are
  • Allow Key Recovery Agents to recover encrypted data
  • Ensure that licensing for the TTPs is voluntary

A consultation paper detailing the exact proposals could be available within a couple of weeks and a Competitiveness White Paper is also expected in early December.

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