UK Government Unveils Electronic Communications Bill

A new bill involving e-commerce was announced Wednesday in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament, answering voiced concerns of a lack of online policy.

The Electronic Communications Bill, its specifics to be divulged on Friday, outlines policies that would give legal status to electronic signatures and set standards for e-commerce in the U.K. The first draft of the bill was published in July.

The aim of the bill is to “develop the U.K. as the best environment worldwide in which to trade electronically,” said a government statement. Also outlined was a government strategy that 90 percent of government purchases be made electronically by 2001.

The British government has long been criticized for being slow to adopt e-commerce laws. In May, the head of Microsoft UK attacked the government’s record in formulating e-commerce policy by saying that the government attempts to control the Internet. The House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry said earlier this year that there was a “yawning gap between ambition and achievement.”

The announcement Wednesday was missing a controversial element — one that addresses law enforcement powers of the police. Civil liberties groups had opposed that part of the bill that had nothing to do with electronic communications.

“We welcome the removal of the law enforcement section from the announced Electronic Communications Bill, which will now deal only with electronic commerce issues,” said Yaman Akdeniz, director of the Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties group in the U.K. “This is an important step forward for the development of electronic commerce in the U.K.”

Also announced Wednesday was Regulation of Investigatory Powers, which would strengthen the regulation of covert surveillance and would provide for lawful access to encrypted data.

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