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Congress Reaches Deal On E-Signature Legislation

Washington – Electronic contracts would gain the same legal status as
handwritten signatures under legislation that has cleared a key
congressional hurdle on its way to becoming law.

House and Senate lawmakers, after months of negotiations among themselves
and with the administration on such issues as how to protect consumers from
abuses, late Thursday reached a compromise that could speed the measure
toward passage.

The legislation would set national standards for electronic signatures and
records and give them the same legal validity as written contracts and

“Electronic signatures and records will help grow the digital economy by
giving American consumers greater confidence in their online business
transactions. This is one of the most important steps Congress can take to
help foster the growth of the digital economy,” said Rep. Tom Bliley,
R-Va., who chairs the House Commerce Committee.

“This legislation will revolutionize the way consumers, industry and
government conduct business over the Internet,” said Sen. Spencer Abraham,
R-Mich., sponsor of the Senate bill.

Bliley said the House is likely to take up the compromise plan next Tuesday.
In the Senate, a hurdle to quick passage was removed Friday when Senate
Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who had balked at some of
the final concessions, said he would vote for “this historic” bill.

He noted that language was included to give regulators the authority to
waive aspects of the consumer consent process if they became too burdensome.

Both the House and Senate passed e-signature bills with little opposition
last November, but resolving differences between the two bills has proved to
be difficult. The administration and some Democrats opposed sections they
said could weaken consumer protections while business groups lobbied against
provisions on consumer consent they said would hinder smooth E-commerce

Among the last issues to be settled was setting March 1, 2001, as the date
when records required by law, such as mortgages and financial securities,
can legally be filed electronically. Some businesses had sought a later

The negotiators also closed a loophole that would have made it easier for
states to pre-empt the federal law. States can still demand paper forms on
such matters as public health and safety.

Under the bill, consumers must “opt in” for electronic records, ensuring
that those who don’t have access to computers or prefer written forms won’t
be left unaware when a company electronically serves notice on such matters
as warranties, changes in interest rates or recalls.

Marc Brailov, spokesman for the American Electronics Association, said his
group was pleased with the final product. He called it “a vital
prerequisite to the continued growth of E-commerce. It provides legal
certainty for online business.”

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