I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to bring this landmark legislation before the House. The Internet has been likened by some to a juggernaut of change speeding towards every organisation and the Government is determined not to be caught in its headlights. The Internet revolution will bring significant opportunities and the leaders of tomorrow are those who seize those opportunities. In past decades Ireland has excelled in implementing strategies to take advantage of niche opportunities in areas such as pharmaceuticals, teleservices and software development. However, the e-commerce opportunity is far larger than any of these and that is why it is so important that we get the strategy right from day one.
In a very short time the forces of technology, competition and deregulation have led to this revolutionary transformation in the telecommunications and information services industry. This unprecedented speed of change has transformed opportunities for new entrepreneurs and established companies alike. It is incumbent on Government to introduce policies and practices which foster market driven infrastructure and services and these, in turn, will create new choices for people to live, work, learn and create.
The Internet is the fastest growing telecommunications network in history. By next year it will have created a single global market of well more than 300 million people. To put this in context, that is as big as the Single European Market. Therefore, Ireland must adapt to move its focus from the Single Market to the cyber market. The Internet has the capacity to overturn current orthodoxy and will create a critical need for high transmission speeds and better connectivity and will lead to the development of entirely new models of pricing, regulations and ownership.
Ireland is well established as a world class supplier of knowledge intensive goods and services to an increasingly open and competitive global market. The strong economic growth in recent years is built on the solid foundations of a stable macro-economic policy, social partnership and an industrial policy focusing on the development of high-skilled sectors. To sustain this growth and to add value to what has already been achieved, Ireland must become a global leader in the development of electronic commerce.
There is no doubt that electronic commerce will migrate towards countries which provide low cost, high quality telecommunications and Internet services, the right mix of technically skilled people and a supportive, progressive legal framework. This Bill is aimed at providing a key piece of that jigsaw. In the Internet world neither physical size nor location necessarily dictate success and this is to Ireland's advantage. With appropriate strategic positioning, Ireland can sustain its position as Europe's leading knowledge economy. However, it is essential that Government and all sectors of the community take a pro-active role in addressing the many critical things that need to be done to sustain that position. The facilitation of electronic commerce in this far-sighted legislation is one of those key enablers.
The Title of the Bill might suggest that it is important only for the commercial world but that is a misleading impression. My vision of what the information society should mean in Ireland is one that includes all of society – homes, schools, businesses and Government agencies – interconnected in the first fully networked nation. In a sense, both processes must work in tandem. If business in Ireland is to be able to take full advantage of e-commerce, then it will need staff and customers who are capable of working in an electronic world.
In addition to regional disparities, social disparities and the emerging digital divide must be addressed. As with most new technologies the business community was the early adopter and e-commerce is no different. For example, despite the fact that almost every business in the country now has a fax machine, they have yet to become a feature of most homes, except in those owned by politicians. It is no surprise, therefore, that business-to-business e-commerce is by far the largest segment of the market. The strategic advantage we are giving Ireland in e-commerce should be seen as a national asset to be exploited for the common good. It is my objective to ensure that there is gain sharing for all the community in the opportunities ahead.
The Internet revolution and the emerging knowledge economy demand new ways of thinking, working, interacting and even new ways of commuting. The electronic commerce revolution will turn what are currently called atypical working arrangements, such as teleworking, into typical working arrangements. The information society and investment in the proper infrastructure can release much needed resources and can tap latent talent and initiative. They can also uncork some of the serious infrastructural bottlenecks facing us in more developed parts of the country. It has even been predicted that the Internet could even reverse the centuries old trend of urbanisation and allow more of us benefit from the better quality of life of the countryside.
Most of all, it can lead to a more democratic, open and inclusive society. Internet access and the wholesale availability of Government and local authority services on-line can empower people. Electronic Government can offer significant improvements to the democratic process. It will enhance access, give a real voice and make politicians and public officials more accountable in their actions to the public who elected and appointed them. They will facilitate a more flexible working environment, which is more conducive to a higher quality of life.
Ireland is on the cusp of a major opportunity in this area. This Bill, the International Connectivity Project, the broad-band programmes, the national development plan, the technology foresight initiative and the Government's Programme for Prosperity and Fairness amount to an enormous application of resources to this area. In applying those resources, we must not forget this unprecedented opportunity to leave a lasting legacy and to buttress all Irish society into the 21st century.
With regard to the background and purpose of the Bill, when trying to legislate for the Internet, we can learn much from its anarchist origins. The success of the Internet can be attributed in large part to the open, free and borderless nature of the network. Given those origins, the last thing the Internet needs at this stage is the heavy hand of Government regulation. As the Internet grows, it begins to mirror society more, more commerce, more legal cases, more confrontations to control what is going on. The challenge for Government is to strike the right balance between the various forces of control, Government regulation, self-regulation by industry, the free market and technological progress. This Bill strikes the correct balance and, in no small part, that is down to the way in which it was developed.
A radically different approach to formulating legislation is required to address the issues raised by the Internet. One aspect of this new approach is more open consultation during the legislative process. This Bill is the product of extensive public consultation from the outset. The original consultation paper published last August was drafted during a series of workshops and focus groups organised by the Department. That consultation process proved very successful and submissions were received from different businesses, organisations and individuals. An on-line discussion forum was also opened to encourage public debate on the proposals. This is a model for how Internet technologies can help in the legislative and public policy processes.
All the submissions were taken into account during the drafting of the Bill and I would like to think that as a result we have before us a much improved Bill, which I am sure will be further improved by amendments that will be tabled to it by Members on all sides of the House on later Stages.
The Bill also takes account of the global context. The Internet is a truly global phenomenon and national legislation must take account of international developments. During the drafting of the Bill a variety of legislative models were studied. In particular, the Bill draws on the electronic commerce model law published by the United Nations' Commission on International Trade Law, which was developed to help countries around the globe develop compatible laws on e-commerce. The Bill also implements the European Union's Electronic Signature Directive, which creates a harmonised approach to the legal recognition of electronic signatures throughout its member states.
The Bill is founded on two basic principles, functional equivalence of electronic media and technology neutrality. Functional equivalence means that communications using electronic means should not be treated any differently under the law than communications using traditional media. Given the extraordinary pace of technological developments in this area, it would be foolhardy to endorse a particular technology, which is why the Bill is drafted in a technology neutral fashion.
The Bill is also founded on the principle that Internet users should have free and open access to whatever level of security technologies with which they feel comfortable. Technological solutions exist to allow commercial transactions to be carried out with confidence and to ensure that privacy is preserved. Many of these solutions are based on some form of cryptography and it is essential that Internet users have easy access to strong cryptography. This policy is enshrined and underpinned by the legislation.
The Bill is a first step in adapting our Statute Book to take account of the realities of the Internet. It would be impossible and undesirable to introduce a new set of laws for e-commerce. There is no reason the laws that currently govern traditional commerce should not apply to e-commerce. Company law, consumer law and privacy law already lay down principles that apply equally off-line as on-line. What may be required, however, is that this legislation be amended to take account of this new way of doing business.
The Bill is intended to simply remove existing legal impediments and uncertainties that have arisen as a result of the onset and continuing growth of e-commerce. It allows consumers and business the freedom to use electronic communications to satisfy existing legal requirements. The legislation is not intended to introduce a new legal framework for e-commerce, it is intended to be enabling.
I will briefly outline the purpose of each section. Section 1 contains the short title and provides for the commencement of the Bill, once enacted. Much of the Bill is based on the Electronic Signature Directive. Important definitions in section 2 are "electronic communication", "electronic signature" and "information". "Public body" is defined to include all Departments and agencies.
Sections 3 to 8 are standard legislative provisions. Section 8 lays down the penalties for offences under the Bill. One purpose of the Bill is to engender confidence and trust in e-commerce. A number of submissions during the consultation process suggested that the maximum fine proposed of £80,000 should be increased substantially. The Bill provides for fines of up to half a million pounds.
Part 2 provides for equivalence between the electronic and paper world. Section 9 lays down the fundamental principle on which the Bill is founded, that information in electronic form can not be denied legal effect, validity or enforceability merely on the basis that it is in electronic form.
A number of areas of our laws to which it is proposed the Bill will not initially apply are outlined in section 10. Laws governing the registration of immovable property, wills, trusts and enduring powers of attorney are excluded because it is felt the technology and systems are not yet at a stage where they could cope with the execution of such transactions electronically. These areas are excluded only for the time being. Once it is appropriate to extend the legislation to these areas, the Minister of the day has the power to make regulations to extend the application of the legislation to them.
Section 11 clarifies that nothing in the Bill shall prejudice tax law. We want to ensure the Bill does not inadvertently contradict tax law or create loopholes for tax avoidance. This provision in no way hinders the Revenue Commissioners from dealing electronically with their customers. The Revenue Commissioners and its related area has been one of the first areas to adapt smartly to the electronic age.
Section 12 sets out basic requirements that writing in electronic form must meet. At the time the writing was given, the author must reasonably expect that the writing be accessible for subsequent reference. A distinction is made between the requirements of public and private bodies. In essence, this allows public bodies to lay down their requirements before being obliged to receive writing electronically. Private bodies require the consent of the recipient to use electronic writing. That provision is very necessary.
Section 13 is similar in format to the previous section and deals with the use of electronic signatures in place of written signatures under the law. This provision is designed to eliminate uncertainty in that regard.
Section 14 allows for signatures to be witnessed electronically. In this case advanced electronic signatures must be used because they offer a higher level of authenticity, which is considered appropriate for documents that need to be witnessed.
Section 15 provides for an electronic method of meeting the requirement for a seal using electronic signatures.
Section 17 allows for the retention and subsequent production of documents electronically.
Section 18 is one of the most important sections. As with electronic signatures, it is unclear at present whether contracts concluded by electronic means are valid. This provision clarifies that they are. It provides that a contract may be concluded using electronic communications and lays down the principle that a contract shall not be denied legal effect, validity or enforceability solely on the grounds that it is in electronic form.
Section 19 provides for basic presumptions regarding the determination of who actually sent a particular electronic communication. It will be deemed to be that of the originator if it was sent by the originator. Section 20 provides for the acknowledgement of receipt of electronic communications. Various levels of acknowledgements are available to users of electronic communications. Section 21 provides default rules for determining when and from where electronic communications are sent, and when and where they are received.
The information society action plan published last year gave a commitment that my Department, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, would look at enactment of legislation dealing with electronic evidence in courts. Section 22 addresses this action point by providing for the admissibility of electronic information as evidence in legal proceedings.
The Government recognises that everyone will not want or be in a position to communicate electronically and that parallel paper and electronic systems will have to be maintained into the future. Section 23 clarifies this point by stating that nothing in the Bill can be interpreted as requiring the use of electronic communications. As awareness of the benefits of communicating electronically increases, the number of people wishing to migrate from the paper to the electronic form will grow. However, the education levels and attitude changes will take time to achieve.
Section 24 provides for a number of offences for the fraudulent use of electronic signatures, signature creation devices and electronic certificates.
Section 25 was accepted by me as a Committee Stage amendment in the Upper House. Given the nature of the Internet, the systems used to commit offences may well be located outside the State. Section 26 lays down the investigative procedures for the offences created in the previous section.
Section 27 ensures that nothing in the Bill can be construed as requiring the disclosure or enabling the seizure of keys or codes used to keep information confidential. Such protection is essential for the security of e-commerce and was something that received widespread industry support during the consultation process.
Part 3 of the Bill provides for matters relating to the service providers who issue electronic signature certificates or provide other services related to electronic signatures. These service providers are known in the Bill as certification service providers. This Part of the Bill is derived from the electronic signature directive. The market for such service is only beginning and there are only a handful of organisations planning to offer services in Ireland at present. These provisions are designed to offer flexibility. Strong prescriptive regulation of the market, before it is even created, could hinder the growth of the market.
Section 28 gives the Minister the power to prescribe accreditation and supervision schemes for certification service providers. The final shape of the schemes has yet to be determined. This will be a matter which will be looked at in the light of market developments and developments in other member states. However, the National Accreditation Board has begun a pilot accreditation scheme and is co-ordinating with its European colleagues.
Section 29 deals with the liability of certification service providers. This is a very important section given that the issue of the accreditation and certification service has arisen quite often. I hope the provisions of the Bill will give certainty to it.
Section 30 gives the Minister the power to place the registration of Irish Internet domain names on a statutory basis. The two-letter code assigned to Ireland for domain names is IE, which incidentally are the initials of Íarnród Éireann. The IE domain name is a national resource which should be managed in the public interest as in the interests of the Internet community.
The Schedule repeats the annexes to the electronic signatures directive for reference purposes.
I am sure one or two amendments will be tabled by the various parties and I undertake to look positively at them if they fit into the format of the Bill. I am always amused at people who think a Bill is perfect and question why amendments should be accepted. I always approach it from the other side. Why bring a Bill to Second Stage and Committee Stage if there is not wisdom to be absorbed from other people and other parties? I hope that is how this Bill will proceed.
I did not go through the detail of the Schedules because it is available in my speech. I wish to pay tribute, as I did in the other House, to the information society which has been an active umbrella group for all that is taking place in this area. I praise the acumen of the previous Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton, who set up the information society and the work which flowed and continues to flow from it, including the series of seminars. This was the beginning of the surge forward in electronic commerce.
I met Patricia Hewitt, the UK Minister responsible for electronic commerce, who came to see me about two months ago. We had a good discussion. The UK Bill went on for months because half way through, it got overlaid with bureaucracy. In her communications with me when we met and since then, she said they dabbled in bringing the Bill down paths it need never have gone.
The Bill should be simple. It is an enabling Bill. Therefore, it does not have to be burdensome or bureaucratic but must be capable of being understood. Business wants to do its business in this way. Whatever about business to the consumer, the growth of which will be reasonably limited, people will always want to feel the fabric, look at the goods, press the melon or whatever. Certainly business on the Internet is huge. Underpinning that will be the validity and authenticity of electronic signatures.
I commend the Bill to the House.