The US House of Representatives today gave its approval to a bill that will make electronic signatures as legal as paper ones.
A similar measure is pending in the US Senate, despite objections from consumer rights advocates.
The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, or E-SIGN, was introduced by Republican Tom Bliley, in order to leapfrog state legislatures by setting a national benchmark for states that haven't determined a policy.
Most states have adopted - or are considering - legislation that would make electronic signatures legally binding in at least some types of transactions. Electronic signatures can take several forms - a name typed at the end of an electronic document, a digitized image of a hand-written signature, or a "digital signature", composed of a string of letters and numbers that can be unscrambled with encryption software.
State laws vary on the types of signatures and transactions covered, despite the efforts of one group to win ratification of a single standard, called the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA). The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws finalized UETA in July; so far just one state, California, has adopted it, albeit with several changes.
Proponents say that, in the lightning-fast world of e-commerce, a national standard for electronic signatures is needed to speed-up a wide range of business transactions, from buying a car to opening a brokerage account.
But, opponents of the bill say that it unnecessarily pre-empts state laws, and places an unfair burden on consumers.
"We're still hoping that justice will prevail," said Margot Saunders, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Centre.
The House bill was stalled in recent weeks over provisions that allow businesses to provide important documents - such as recall notices, warranties and changes in contract terms - exclusively by electronic means. Consumer rights advocates feared the provisions would harm people without computers, and would place an unfair burden on consumers to make sure they continued to receive vital documents.
In response to those concerns, an amendment sponsored by Democrat Jay Inslee, and several other representatives added an "opt in" provision requiring consumer consent before businesses substitute electronic copies of contracts, prescription drug notices and the like, for paper ones.
Opponents call the Inslee amendment a cosmetic fix that doesn't go far enough to protect consumers. Once a consumer consents to getting their records electronically, opponents say, it's up to them to update businesses on email address changes. Furthermore, consumers have no redress if they fail to receive the electronic records, or receive illegible copies.
The Senate bill is less controversial, because it doesn't contain language governing how businesses can provide vital records. Senator Spencer Abraham, a Republican from Michigan, introduced the bill - the Millennium Digital Commerce Act. A spokesman for the Senator said the bill will be brought to the Senate floor for a vote, perhaps as early as this evening, once a "hold" placed by Senator Ernest Hollings, a Democrat, is lifted.
A bill that would have substituted the Senate bill's language for the Bliley bill failed earlier today in the House. The Clinton administration issued a statement yesterday strongly opposing the Bliley bill and urging passage of the substitute measure.
Should the Senate bill pass before Congress adjourns for the year, the two houses will have to work out the differences between the two bills and take another vote next year before sending legislation to the White House.