European telecom ministers today formally approved legislation requiring European Union (EU) members to recognize digital signatures as the legal equivalent to hand-written signatures.

Once implemented, in 18 months' time, the EU directive will ensure the development of e-commerce across Europe, Olli-Pekoe Heinonen, Minister for Transport and Communications told journalists following the day-long Council session.

The move follows the ministers' initial approval of the directive in April of this year.

Digital signatures are codes embedded within electronic messages or transactions, that allow the recipient to identify and authenticate the sender. They also ensure that the data has not been altered in transmission across a computer network.

The measure reflects the growing importance of e-commerce in the European Union, and the need to ensure that differences in national rules do not prevent cross-border electronic transactions.

The directive introduces minimum-liability rules for service providers, who will be liable for the validity of a digital certificate's content. Although public-key cryptography is currently the most widely used technology for producing digital signatures, the EU directive does not favour any specific technology.