New Federal EC Bills Touch State Efforts

The House of Representatives has taken up two new pieces of digital signature legislation with implications at the state level.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) recently introduced legislation to bring federal agencies up to speed with state and local governments who have already embarked on digital signature initiatives. The Electronic Commerce Enhancement Act would require federal agencies to create online versions of all their forms and put into place mechanisms that would allow citizens to submit these forms and associated payments -- such as income tax payments -- via digital signatures.

"The legislation recognizes that a lot of states are moving in this area," a spokesman for Eshoo said. "Under the legislation, federal agencies would have to be consistent with what the private sector and states are already doing. This is not an effort to establish federal technical standards but to light a fire under the federal government to look at what is going on out there in terms of digital signatures."

The bill would require each federal agency head to issue guidelines for determining how its employees would be assigned digital signatures and how those signatures would be used. The bill would allow individual agency heads to determine who would issue certificates, which contain the digital signatures, and confirm that senders and recipients of communications are actually who they say they are.

Meanwhile, Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) last week introduced a bill that also would allow citizens or government employees to sign digital signatures for any federally required communication that was previously limited to handwritten signatures on paper forms.

The Baker bill requires the creation of a National Association of Certification Authorities, which would register any person or group wishing to provide electronic authentication services in the United States. A source familiar with federal digital signature efforts said the provision should set off a "red alert" to those involved with similar legislation at the state level. "The bill is aggressively regulatory and punitive," the source said.

Baker's bill also would require the federal association to form a committee to develop criteria for emerging electronic authorization technology. The committee would report to the Treasury Department secretary.

Federal digital signature efforts have been controversial because the standard the government has supported differs from the one commonly used in the commercial marketplace. The wide use of digital signatures also requires devising a framework of policies, laws and procedures called a public-key infrastructure, which the federal government has been moving toward but has not yet established.

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