Today marks the final deadline for the implementation of the European Union Digital Signature Directive, which means digital signatures will now be recognised as legally binding across the whole of Europe.

"All states have now enforced the legislation and we hope this will mark a positive step forward in e-commerce, cutting out the need for reliance on paper to dot the Is and cross the Ts," said a European Commission spokesperson.

The directive, which received support from almost all 15 member states when it was introduced in draft form, lays down the minimum requirements needed to ensure the authenticity of digital signatures and makes such signatures legally binding.

Shoppers who wish to buy expensive goods over the internet, such as homes and cars, can now do so without the need for extra paperwork and with more security.

"People can now really shop completely online. Until now the internet has been little more than a house locator but now all the legalities can be dealt with over the net," said Jayne Robbins of online estate agent HomesOnline.com.

But security still remains the biggest fear and, as with internet shopping in general, it may take many consumers a while before they trust the service.

"When it comes to the internet, security is always an issue, but digital signatures are just as safe as paper-written signatures," said a spokesperson at the Consumers Association. "We hope this will make buying online even easier."

"The impact on online shopping will probably be quite slow, but with internet take-up growing all the time it won't be long before people are using this sort of system as standard," said the CA spokesperson.