Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio December
The Law & the Planner
By Jonathan T. Howe,
SIGNING ON THE VIRTUAL LINE
Electronic signatures are now legal and binding, but the
process is still a work in progress
Electronic signatures are now as binding as
those scribbled in ink. The new Electronic Signatures in Global and
National Commerce Act, which took effect on Oct. 1, legalizes the
use of digital signatures to finalize documents.
Under this act, a contract or any other signed document may not
be denied legal effect, validity or enforceability solely because
it is in electronic form or because an electronic signature or
record was used in its formation.
In other words, almost any transaction may now be done wholly on
the computer. For example, when registering for a meeting online,
attendees now can be required to attach signatures when they use a
credit card; the same is true for buying items electronically.
Contracts with vendors can be signed via e-mail or over the
Faxes are covered in the legislation as well. A signed document
sent by fax is as binding as the original copy. The act also
legalizes the notarization of documents electronically.
To sign online, two elements are necessary: an electronic version
of your signature (it can be a scanned version of your penned
signature, a symbol, a sound or an image) and a digital ID.
The electronic signature is affixed to the file. That is the
easy part. The more complicated element is verifying who signed
what. There is no standard yet for this process. In order for your
digital signature to be valid, you must first obtain a digital
certificate or ID to support your identity. Numerous companies
offer such services; one of the best known is Verisign (www.verisign.com). This
ID allows you to encrypt messages and documents sent over the
Internet so they can be opened only by the intended recipient.
Here's how it would work for meeting planners: A contract,
created online, has been agreed to and is ready to be signed by the
planner. The supplier signs up with Verisign and is sent a public
key and a private key to his identity. He sends the public key out
with the contract to the planner. After electronically signing the
document, the planner uses the supplier's public key to encrypt the
document and sends it back. The supplier, using the private key, is
the only person who can open that document. If it is intercepted
along the way, it appears as gibberish.
Two other encryption programs are PGP (which stands for Pretty
Good Privacy) from Network Associates (www.pgp.com) and Approvelt from Silanis Technology
Because the technology is so young, analysts say it will be at
least five to six years before electronic signatures become the way
to do business. But, considering the speed at which business models
have changed recently, I doubt it will take that long.
Just because this act is now in effect does not mean you have to
use digital signatures or that you have to deal with a colleague
electronically if you don't want to. The legislation's language is
very clear that everyone has the right to agree or refuse to accept
electronic records, signatures or contracts.
Being a little bit of the old school, I suggest that you still
exchange hard copy with ink on the signature page for purposes of
settling any kind of contractual issue. In the long run, however,
the new law should help expedite the relationships between
planners, attendees and vendors.
To learn more about electronic signatures including some
situations where they are not valid visit these sites: Webopedia
digital_signature.html) and the White House (www.whitehouse.gov/WH/New/html/20000630.html).Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,
is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm
of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel
and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at email@example.com.
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