E-commerce policy requiresmore than quick thinking

It would appear thate-commerce is doing pretty well without Tony Blair's blessing
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IN BETWEEN sorting out the Irish peaceprocess and denouncing dodgy European Commissioners, Tony Blair has foundtime to put his 10 pence worth into improving the lot of the onlinebargain-hunter. The Prime Minister has set the target for the UK to bethe best environment for electronic trading by the year 2002.

IN BETWEEN sorting out the Irish peaceprocess and denouncing dodgy European Commissioners, Tony Blair has foundtime to put his 10 pence worth into improving the lot of the onlinebargain-hunter. The Prime Minister has set the target for the UK to bethe best environment for electronic trading by the year 2002.

Since morethan 25 per cent of UK Net users have already shopped online, it would appearthat e-commerce is doing pretty well without Tony's blessing.However, the Department of Trade and Industry has published a list ofintended e-commerce legislation, and invites your comments by 1April. It's good to see that the Government has discovered "webtime", although the three-week consultation period is better suitedto Silicon Valley venture capitalists than to Whitehall bureaucrats.

Up fordiscussion is the legal and technical process for the roll-out of electronicsignatures (simply an electronic equivalent of manual signatures). Ifthe very idea makes your eyes glaze over, spare a thought for the poor sodsin the online sales business. They have to cope with a plague of"test" orders and "I've changed my mind" orders, or"I would like to pretend for 10 minutes that I want to go to New York"orders (a popular therapy among online travel shoppers).

Manyonline travel services are troubled by customers who book the cheapo flight toNew York, then change their minds and cancel half an hour later.Meanwhile, the online travel agent assumes this ticket is sold, and takesit off the availability lists to avoid double-booking. By the time thecustomer has cancelled, the agent has missed the opportunity to sell theticket to somebody else.

However, if electronic signatures were legallybinding, the customer would be held accountable for orders and would take theprocess more seriously. This is a problem not just for online travel agentsbut for any fast-moving stock - CDs, clothes, books,hardware.

So the Government seems to be making the right point. Sortingout the electronic signature process would make bargain-hunting moreenjoyable, as you would be sure you were looking at all the availableitems, not just what was left after the "testers" had taken the bestoffers. A solid system for electronic signatures would also allow you to getcredit online (at the moment a written signature is the legalrequirement), which is handy if there's something you like, butthe pay cheque is weeks away.

The problem with the Government'sproposal, though, is that it appears to be slightly schizophrenic. Onone hand, the Government understands the necessity of electronicsignatures, and is willing to support an agreed cryptography solution(that is, the technology behind the electronic signature encodingprocess). On the other hand, it wants new powers for law enforcementagencies to gain access to encrypted data. They want the police to be able tobreak encrypted messages if criminal activity is suspected.

The Governmentfails to understand that electronic signatures are tools of trust betweencustomer and merchant. Inviting the police into that closely guardedrelationship would be stretching that trust beyond what most people are preparedto accept. If I shop on Amazon.com, I don't particularly want thepolice to know about it. I'm happy for Amazon to sort out a digitalsignature system, but not to share that with law enforcement agencies,for fear of potential abuse of the system.

The technical aspect ofelectronic signatures will also be a major discussion point, as hackersabound and most sophisticated encryption systems can be broken, given enoughcomputing power and hackers' talents for exposing code weaknesses. TheGovernment correctly suggests that the law in this case should betechnology-neutral, and recommends that licensed certificationauthorities be set up to offer that technical solution. But the very idea ofa private authority holding data on my finances makes me shiver, as thissituation is certainly open to abuse.

But hey! Who said that the futurewould be easy? The issue of electronic signatures must be resolved, butit also must be debated so we don't choose unworkable solutions. Givingthree weeks' consultation time on such a complex issue seems a bit meanconsidering the implications.

Meanwhile, I personally would like to seethe Government delivering on the promise that 25 per cent of its own dealingswith citizens will be done online by 2002. I don't know how many weeks Ihave been carrying my council tax payment around in my bag, never quiteposting it off. If I could pay that bill online, though, theGovernment would have saved a lot of money that is now being spent chasing me(and countless others like me).

If that "chase money" wentinto developing online tax collection, we would have a nice budget for acutting-edge governmental e-commerce system. Submitting my generaltax assessment online would be another wish, and paying the TV licence fee ison my list as well.

So it seems the Government has its work cut out withoutventuring into tricky areas such as electronic signatures. But it is no doubtmore fun writing White Papers than slaving away on specifications for an onlinetax collection system. Meanwhile, if you want to comment on the proposalfor electronic signatures, check out theWhite Paper and mail your comments to Stephen deSouza (sec@ciid.dti.gov.uk).

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