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Virtual signature headed for the real world

E-signatures will be protected with a set of digital codes Keystone

The Swiss may soon be swapping their trusty pen and paper for a virtual signature when buying a house or signing legal documents.

The House of Representatives has approved potentially groundbreaking proposals to give contracts sealed with an electronic signature the same legal status as written ones.

The draft legislation takes e-commerce – the purchase of goods and services on the Internet – one step further by making it possible for citizens to sign up for an apartment or health insurance by email.

Under the proposed law, which is still subject to approval by the Senate, the parties to an electronic contract would to be clearly identified with a set of digital codes.

To guarantee complete transparency, an e-signature would have to be obtained from a certification authority.

If approved, the new law would puts Switzerland among the first European countries to recognise e-signatures.

Political rift

The legislation, which was pushed through by the majority centre-right parties, encountered opposition from the Social Democrats and Greens. They argued that the draft was incomplete as it only covered private transactions.

“We would have liked the law to take into account all types of electronic transactions, such as e-voting,” said Social Democrat Jost Gross.

E-voting has been undergoing trials in Switzerland, in the hope that Swiss abroad in particular would be able to take a more active part in elections.

It could also pave the way for a full-blown e-government in Switzerland.

“It could be used more in the government sector,” said Thomas Pletscher of the Swiss business federation, economiesuisse. “For example, a company could file tax returns and interact with the authorities electronically.”


The Left also felt that the law did not offer enough safeguards to prevent fraudulent use of e-signatures.

However, the majority of parliamentarians now believe there are enough safeguards to make electronic transactions viable.

The Radical Felix Gutzwiller compared the e-signature to using a credit card. “When you lose a credit card, you know what you have to do,” he said.

The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, pointed out that the owner of a digital signature would not be held responsible for fraud committed by another person.

If passed by the Senate, the legislation will come into force at the beginning of 2005.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR