Member states under fire for failing to sign up to digital signature rules

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Series Details Vol.7, No.29, 19.7.01, p25
Publication Date 19/07/2001
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Date: 19/07/01

By Peter Chapman

MORE than half the EU's member states are in legal hot water after failing to implement new rules on digital signatures.

A directive adopted in November 1999 was meant to give unique, jumbled arrays of binary code the same legal status as personally hand-written signatures.

But sources say only seven governments - France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Germany and the UK - have implemented the rules in time for this week's deadline and not all of those have done so correctly. Some member states already have rules which still need to be updated, they add.

European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd confirmed that government officials could find legal warning letters in their in-trays when they return from their summer breaks. "There are always infringements when they don't respect deadlines for implementation," Todd said. "They have an obligation to implement by a given date - and it's the member states that agree the date."

Under Union infringement rules, the Commission must go through three stages before taking member states to the European Court of Justice. The first step is to send a warning letter. If EU countries fail to act the Commission sends a 'reasoned opinion' - detailing its legal case against a country. If that fails the College of Commissioners can refer a case to the court for final adjudication.

But industry experts said the fact that the directive has not yet been implemented across the Union does not spell disaster. Firms are gearing up with new technology, and already expect to have the validity of digital signatures upheld in national courts.

US company VeriSign, which runs the '.com' Internet domain, has already rolled-out what it claims is EU-compliant technology in member states. It has licensed its services to Union organisations such as telecom operators which will act as 'certificate authorities' - by checking that someone's digital signature is authentic.

VeriSign's Roger Cochetti said the development of such services "would serve as a catalyst for increased online interaction throughout the EU".

Digital signatures are expected to boost online trade and can also be used for electronic voting and medical consultations.

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