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Digital signatures directive dogged by small print

Digital signatures will take more solid form in two weeks’ time when the European Forum for Electronic Business meets in London to discuss possible interpretations and how countries are making real the European Electronic Signatures Directive.

Representatives from the European Union's 18 member states and Eema, (formerly the European Electronic Messaging Association but now fulfilling a broader role), will meet on 25 September to thrash out how countries can achieve the directive’s targets.

"With any European directive, it is only the objectives that are binding and not the way these objectives are achieved," said Jos Dumortier, chairman of Eema's legal workgroup. "Each member state is implementing the directive in different ways and, therefore, the interpretation of certain provisions are divergent to say the least."

The directive was to be implemented across all member states by 19 July but confusion over the standards established for e-signature technology meant countries were not able to transpose (apply in local law) it in time.

"[There needs to be] a universal standard approved by the Article 9 committee (appointed to oversee the directive’s implementation). This hasn't yet been done, so countries just don't know which standards to adopt," said Dumortier.

Although fully in support of a European free market, the Department of Trade and Industry expressed its concerns over these standards earlier this year. "Divergent legal and technical approaches could lead to a serious obstacle to international trade," warned a DTI press statement in February.

"Our concern is over the harmonisation of the directive. It is essential we create a level playing field for European trade," said a DRI spokesman.

The core problem, according to Dumortier, is the need to establish an accreditation scheme for certification service providers, certification authorities and other legal bodies. All these organisations are required to make the system of digital signatures work.

Thus far each country has established its own accreditation scheme. This has resulted in disparate accreditation requirements across the EU. In Germany, for example, the requirements are much stricter than in other countries such as Holland and Belgium.

"The problem is whether states will have to get accreditation from every country (which would be extremely costly), the country with the strictest test or just from their own country," said Dumortier.

"The objective of the meeting is to compare the differing timescales, interpretations and implications of the directive, so we can understand and clarify the impact on the various affected parties," added Dumortier.

All information gained at the meeting will be presented to the European Regulatory/Supervisory Authorities at a meeting to discuss the directive's implications in Milan on 1 October.

No new date has yet been set for the directive’s implementation.

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