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Digital signatures are writing the future of EBPP President Clinton did his part for the Internet age in June by signing - with a pen - the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which gave electronic signatures the equivalent legal status of handwritten signatures.

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Electronic, or digital, signatures are linked to the electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) market in two ways. This method one day will become an integral part of the online bill payment process, and it faces the same challenge that EBPP does - it is completely dependent upon consumers' readiness to adopt.

The technology is available, but consumers are not obligated to use it. However, that's what we thought about compact discs and VHS until we had no other options. While vendors believe that digital signatures will be a boon to e-commerce, and EBPP in particular, vendors' support is measured by which EBPP technology they provide.

"[Electronic signatures] will help move forward more widespread acceptance of digital documents by giving them an equal footing with paper-based documents," said Read Zeigler, chief marketing officer for Derivion.

However, Derivion has not yet jumped on the bandwagon. "The real benefit is just the convenience and time savings of paying electronically anytime, anywhere. We try to do the same by offering a variety of end points where people can access and pay their bills," Zeigler said.

It is too soon to judge the significance of the E-Sign Act because its electronic signature provisions took effect on Oct. 1, 2000, but it is expected to be huge.

Upon the act's passage, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said it would be remembered as a historic vote that "modernized our laws to keep up with the fundamental shift technology has brought to the American economy."

Now that the law has been modernized, it is up to the business community to bring consumers along.

"Digital signatures have not yet had much of an impact, but they will," said Ron Averett, president and chief operating officer for Princeton eCom. "They will continue to make it easier for consumers to do business over the Web."

The federal statute addressing electronic signatures came only after states began passing their own laws, which were quickly leading to non-standard practices and creating an interoperability monster.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is just one of the many forums and government organizations working on overcoming this issue. The organization began working on public key infrastructure (PKI) for the federal government in the early 1990s and now has a program dedicated to the development of commercially available PKI products and services that are interoperable and secure. NIST has combined its PKI project with its Secure Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (S/MIME) project in order to improve the security and interoperability of S/MIME-based products as well.

E-mail applications such as those offered by MicroVault and MessagingDirect rely in part on S/MIME technology.

MessagingDirect's CEO Don Pare has high hopes that standards-based electronic signatures will propel not just EBPP but the direct e-mail solution in particular. However, he feels the act didn't go far enough.

"The Electronic Signature Act was not as clear as were other such acts around the world. Outside the U.S. it is absolutely clear that e-mail and digital signatures are preferred," Pare said. "It doesn't say what other approaches may or may not be used."

Even so, his company already is developing solutions around digital signatures. MessagingDirect has applied for a patent on technology that will, according to Pare, "make digital signatures as simple as transferring a cookie." MessagingDirect has found a way to insert a digital certificate into someone's Web browser or e-mail as a behind-the-scenes task, Pare said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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