Italy to Launch Legally Binding Digital Signature

ROME (01/28/2000) - Italy, a country notorious for its ponderous and inefficient bureaucracy, is set to become the first European country to introduce a legally binding digital signature next month, when the government is expected to authorize a number of organizations to act as digital keyholders.

Four organizations have applied for official approval as registrars of digital signatures, and the Italian Authority for Information Technology in Public Administration (AIPA) is due to rule on their requests during the course of February, AIPA spokesman Franco Tallarita said.

"Digital signatures already exist. The novelty is that computer contracts will now have the same juridical value as paper ones," Tallarita said in a telephone interview. "We are in the lead in this field. No other European country has taken this step yet."

Among the organizations that have applied to act as registrars for the new system are the Societa Interbancaria per l'Automazione (SIA) SpA, the Societa di Servizi Bancari SpA and Infocamere SpA, the company responsible for the IT services of Italy's chambers of commerce. Other companies have also contacted the authority and are considering applying for registrar status, Tallarita said.

SIA is expected to be given responsibility for a national system of oversight for the various local key holders.

Participants in the new system will be able to obtain a private key from one of the official registrars, probably in the form of a smart card, and security will be supplemented by a personal access code, Tallarita said. At the same time a public key will be deposited with the registrar, he said.

The system will enable people to notarize particular legal acts, such as a purchase order or the placing of a bid, according to Renzo Vanetti, chief executive officer of SIA.

Many Italians harbor a natural suspicion of new technology and are by no means convinced of the safety of doing business over Internet, but Tallarita is confident that the new system will help to dispel their fears. "There was the same sort of wariness over credit cards and ATM cards, but people get overit with use," the AIPA spokesman said.

AIPA has been in contact with representatives of the European Commission and colleagues from other countries with a view to extending a similar system throughout Europe. "I don't know what the final solution will be, but it will certainly be very close to the one we have developed," Tallarita said.

Britain and the U.S. have also developed digital signatures for electronic commerce, he said, but Anglo-Saxon countries were less concerned about codifying the rules in a written law. The juridical value of Italy's digital signatures is recognized in the 1997 Bassanini law on the reform of the public administration, Tallarita said.

The paradox of an administratively backward country finding itself in the forefront of technological change can be easily explained, Tallarita said.

"We have a very inefficient bureaucracy, so the need for radical change is keenly felt here. Countries such as France or Germany, with a more efficient administration, have a less pressing need for change."

AIPA can be contacted in Rome at +39-06-8526-4265 or on the World Wide Web at http://www.aipa.it.

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