A vote for simplicity

Thomas R. Temin

At long last, Congress has passed and President Clinton has signed a bill declaring digital signatures legal for commercial and government transactions.

The law isn't quite the groundbreaking event its backers claim; many states enacted similar legislation years ago and have been using digital signatures for some time. In that sense, the federal government is playing catch-up.

Nonetheless, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act was needed'if only because it will remove any legal barrier to agencies' use of digital signatures.

Much better than a plan for a governmentwide chief information officer and other vague proposals, the law removes a tangible obstacle to online government services.

With it, agencies will have one less excuse for not deploying electronic-government projects. And they must develop applications that integrate easy-to-use digital signature technology.

Agencies will have to figure out how to promote online applications in a way that encourages their use. This will be a challenge because describing a digital signature system and its underlying public-key infrastructure can be difficult. On the flip side, if the requisite Web site warnings about the binding legality of digital signatures are accompanied by puzzling interfaces, people will stay away in droves.

Luckily, more people are trying online transaction programs, both commercial and governmental. The really good dot-com and dot-gov apps are simple and painless, a tribute to the programmers' skill at masking the underlying complexity.

Above all, agencies must avoid what I call the VCR Syndrome.

I recently bought a Sony VCR; the contraption is nearly incomprehensible. The remote control has 28 buttons, not counting the numerical pad. Why is it that no two remote controls are ever remotely similar?

Somehow, the VCR can interact with the cable TV service's schedule. But I've given up trying to use the darn thing as a programmable recording device. And I consider myself reasonably tech-savvy.

Technology needn't be that way. I hope digital signatures make government business online simpler than it is today.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: editor@gcn.com

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