President Clinton has approved landmark legislation that gives most computer-generated signatures in the US the same legal weight as ones signed on paper.

Clinton said that the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act - as the bill is officially known – will "open up new frontiers of economic opportunity while protecting the rights of American consumers".

Clinton signed the bill both with a pen and a personalized digital "smart card", which placed his signature directly on an electronic version of the bill.

History The bill has also been approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate. This follows months of discussion and compromise over the detail of the bill.

Under the new law, consumers are free to choose whether or not they want to receive documents electronically. It also stipulates that consumers and businesses must be provided with the proper software to ensure that the electronic documents can be received, opened and read to make the documents legally binding.

David Butler, a spokesman for Washington-based Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group that supported the digital signatures bill, said today's action by the president puts the burden on the computer industry to ensure that reliable and secure technologies are made available to allow electronic signatures to be widely used.

Fraud However, opponents of the law say the measure doesn't include enough protections to ensure that consumers will be able to avoid becoming the victims of fraud through the use of illegally obtained or counterfeited digital signatures.

Margot Saunders, managing attorney for the Washington office of the National Consumers Law Center, said: "We think identity theft is going to go through the roof because of this.

"I would advise consumers not to agree to the use of electronic signatures unless they are biometrically produced." That process would require the use of a physical signature with a stylus on an electronic pad, retina identification or other unique and positive means of identification, she added.