The federal government will establish a new peak body to develop a national framework for electronic authentication of online activity.
Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston, announced the new National Electronic Authentication Council (NEAC) last week. The council will build business and consumer confidence in systems for authenticating e-commerce transactions, Alston said.
"Electronic authentication can be thought of as providing the digital equivalent of physical signatures, or forms of identification such as a driver's licence," Alston said.
"There has been widespread concern within industry that consumer and small business distrust of e-commerce transactions is inhibiting the development of online commerce.
"The government recognises it has a leadership role to play in building trust," he said.
NEAC will provide a national focal point on authentication matters, including coordination at national and international levels.
It will also coordinate and oversee the development of a framework of standards and codes of practice by industry bodies and Standards Australia on authentication matters.
Additionally, NEAC will offer information and advice on authentication issues, such as a broad 'map' of authentication technology types and best practice, which Australian organisations will be encouraged to follow, Alston said.
Chair of Certification Forum of Australia (CFA), Steven Wilson, welcomed the announcement.
"The CFA generally supports the principles of technology neutrality and light-touch regulation," he said. "It is not necessary for digital signatures to be given any special treatment in the law; the Attorney General's E-Comm Expert Group last year found that the current legal system supports a wide range of authentication approaches. Yet it is apparent that digital signatures and Public Key infrastructure are now major forces in e-commerce," Wilson said.
Josef Pieprzyk, research director at the Centre for Computer Security Research, University of Wollongong, considers the announcement a step in the right direction, but delayed.
"I suspect the Australian government is trying to play catch-up with e-commerce, which is very encouraging -- at least it is a step in the right direction," he said.
Paul Williams, business development manager at Cellarmaster Wines, makes a few provisions: "The technology adopted should be sound, easy to use and universally accepted.
"As e-commerce transcends national borders, adopting a standard for Australia only would be of limited use to consumers who purchase goods from many countries.
"When countries act unilaterally in this area, as with the recent case of the federal government's regulation of online content, the regulations have the potential to be ineffective and in some instances downright obstructive," Williams said.
NEAC is expected to include representation from major organisations and will approach relevant user, industry and government organisations over the next few weeks.