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Friday, July 16, 1999 Published at 17:39 GMT 18:39 UK


UK to publish e-commerce bill

Secure e-commerce and privacy concerns dominate legislation

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The long-running saga of UK Government attempts to regulate e-commerce has taken another twist.

The government now says it will publish a draft of its much-criticised electronic commerce legislation as early as next week.

The publication will open the bill up for fresh consultations and comments and further rewriting during the summer.

The draft bill has been ready for some weeks, but cooperation for it to be introduced and carried over from the current parliamentary session, ending next week, into next autumn's was blocked by the Opposition.

'Dog's breakfast of legislation'

The Conservative spokesman on IT issues, Alan Duncan, writing in Computer Weekly on Thursday, had been urging the government to publish the draft bill now so that industry could see where it stood.

"Industry would then have the summer to comment on the Bill, speeding up progress in the next session," he said.

Mr Duncan has warned the Opposition will not be duped into accepting a "dog's breakfast of legislation". He questions in the article why the bill has to be 30 pages long, saying it should be no more than a few pages confirming that electronic signatures are legal and allowing the industry to regulate itself in providing cryptography services.

He calls for law enforcement concerns about the criminal use of encrypted data to be separated from the bill by addressing them in the Home Office's proposed revision of the Interception of Communications Act.

Details of the draft bill

The government says it was always prepared to publish the bill as a draft and is not being pushed into doing so. The Electronic Communications bill, formerly the Secure Electronic Commerce bill is believed to contain four sections:

  • Part One proposes a voluntary licensing scheme on the lines of a Register of Approved Providers being set up. These would offer services to aid the growth of e-commerce such as electronic signatures and secure transmission of data. Industry wants self-regulation rather than government involvement in this.

  • Part Two deals with the legal recognition of electronic signatures and their admissibility in court. It appears non-contentious.

  • Part Three is the most controversial section, dealing with law enforcement issues. Civil liberties groups will find fault in wording which allows the authorities to serve a warrant or "decryption notice" on anyone they think "appears" to hold the key to coded data. A "tipping off" offence can prevent those being investigated to speak about their case, with their only recourse being an appeal through a secret tribunal.

  • Part Four deals with increasing the telecommunications regulator Oftel's powers to vary the licences of companies.

Delays concern industry

The continuing delays to the bill are concerning some sections of industry. Inter Clear, the UK's first digital Certification Authority and Trusted Service Provider says they pose " a significant threat to the future of e-commerce in this country and the UK's standing within the global Internet environment."

"As the value of transactions on the Internet grow and the environment's complexity increases, an agreed framework around which trust and security of electronic data can be guaranteed becomes increasingly critical," said its managing director, Bob Carter.

" Without a common approach and understanding, the associated risk of doing business via the Net grows, which could seriously hamper the development of the e-commerce market."

The government had pledged to legislate quickly to make the UK the most e-commerce friendly environment in the world. But its bill may now not appear until at least a year after it was first officially promised in the Queen's Speech last November.

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