Electronic Commerce Bill, 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.

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.

I welcome the spirit in which the Minister commended the Bill to the House in so far as she was receptive to looking at possible improvements. I welcome the Bill and will not oppose it on Second Stage. All the business people who advised me on e-living and e-policy favour this light and subtle regulatory approach. I have studied in detail the House of Commons debates on both the Electronic Communications Bill and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. I have heard many say the UK got it wrong and that we are moving in the right direction. In the same way as the Minister always questions whether the Bill is perfect, I wish to propose to the Minister for her consideration some detailed points of amendment. If the construction industry said it should be able to build where it likes, when it likes, the people would say there should be planning laws. If the pharmaceutical industry said it could produce whatever drugs it wished irrespective of the poisons, the people would say there should be a licensing procedure. Perhaps in 20 years' time people will look back and say it was crazy to let this e-commerce world have a free run. I am not just speaking of Ireland but the world.

The US has little or no regulation. There are some important considerations of privacy for the individual such as protection for business. We need to take a balanced approach. I welcome the Bill. I support the idea that Ireland would be a European hub for e-commerce. As part of Ireland's competitiveness, we should welcome e-commerce in all its facets. We should not be in any way complacent because much needs to be done to improve the telecommunications market and make it better for investment in the e-business world. I have no argument with the pace of change and the need for Ireland to have a regulatory regime to ensure the value of a piece of paper is the same whether it is in written or electronic form. I support the Bill in so far as it applies the principle that everything in electronic writing has equal validity to conventional writing in paper form.

However, further liberalisation of telecommunications is urgently needed, specifically regarding the unbundling of the local loop to which I will refer later. Although this relates to industrial policy, incentives are still needed to encourage small businesses and enable them to participate in e-business activities. More needs to be done about the awareness of e-commerce and there is a need for more on-line Government services. There is also a need to greatly expand Internet access in schools and throughout the country. A new generation of Internet access devices needs to be prepared. I intend to table a number of amendments to the Bill.

I presume the Deputy is not moving them now and is only outlining the thrust of them.

No, I am only setting them out. The key issue is that if business is transacted, there will be a digital, numerical, electronic signature which is called cryptography. If a business wants an electronic signature, it will have to approach somebody who will give it a certificate. There is no provision in the Bill to formally register cryptographers. In the UK, the Electronic Communications Bill sets out in detail that the Secretary of State shall establish a registrar or an authority. There may be only two or three in the country, but the people who give out certificates of electronic signatures should, in turn, be registered. I intend to table an amendment to ensure that an authority or a registrar of cryptography is established.

Section 30 proposes that domain names should be registered. However, that relates to dot.ie operations. It should be done also in relation to the handful of cryptographers. For example, if a row developed and a digital signature was copied, one would want to be able to go to the authority and show the validation process. At present, anybody could set up a company and give out these signatures. This area needs to be supervised – this happened in the UK and elsewhere. I do not mind if the Patents Office, the Company Registration Office, the Department or UCD does it, but a body should have that role. There should be a register or registrar of cryptographers which would, in turn, be the certifying authority. It could be modelled on the proposals in section 30 in relation to domain names.

Regarding privacy, it deeply disturbs me that if I surf the net at home, my Internet service provider – in my case, Eircom – can track every site I visit. In addition, various marketing companies can put a cookie on my line and find out every site I visit. This is my personal information and I have rights of protection. I have these rights in other areas under the data protection directive. As the Minister is aware, in the public service people have rights with regard to information. It should be illegal for an Internet service provider – ISP – to have unauthorised tracking of all traffic. Marketing companies should not be able to track a person's surfing of the net without the individual's authorisation. From the date of the enactment of the Bill, any personal information should be deleted.

I draw the Minister's attention to an article inThe Irish Times on 19 May in which it was stated that politicians should wake up, that the State only took an interest because bertieahern.com was a porn site and that there are other issues. It mentioned the woeful ignorance of Deputies and it said key Internet issues included privacy, control of information, right to domain names and cyber squatting.

A point made in the article with which I agree is that the Commission set out a data protection directive in 1998 in relation to general data protection which gives personal privacy and this should be applied to the Internet world. Websites can assemble all types of personal data about individuals, so-called passive data, without their knowledge. There is a need for a minimum privacy policy and restrictions on sending spams, that is, unsolicited e-mail advertisements. If I am interested in betting and I am a client of Paddy Power's, another company could get a list of Paddy Power's clients and write to them asking them to join a racing ownership club etc. This information should be private to the person with whom one is transacting.

There are examples of rows where people want to know how others got their names and how they are able to write to them. I do not want a massive tome of legislation but basic, individual rights of privacy arise in this area. At present, there is no privacy policy at all. The Minister may mention the US and the statistics regarding how much further it has developed with regard to e-commerce. However, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission has been asked to report on this area. An advisory committee is in the final stages of deliberations and its view is that there must be a move away from the currentlaissez-faire approach.

It does not surprise me that every dot.com operation to whom I speak does not want a heavy hand, but I must speak for individuals, the private citizens who have PCs and who will have set top boxes which will enable them to access the Internet via their televisions. Given the many issues in relation to convergence and other possibilities with regard to using the Internet, it is time to address this area.

The Bill deals with electronic signatures. I agree with the Deputy regarding the wider issues, but this precise Bill relates only to electronic signatures. I agree with the Deputy about the overall issue of privacy. One receives much junk mail in one's letterbox and one often wonders how people got one's name and address.

It will not be easy to draft amendments, but I am seeking a simple provision to ensure that no one can track an individual's activity on the Internet without authorisation. In addition, no one should be allowed to retain information without authorisation and any such information should be deleted.

As Ireland grows in the world of e-commerce, there is a need for an appeal body or an authority to deal with dispute resolution. This authority would deal with domain names and a number of other issues. At EU level, there is a need for Ireland to pioneer moves in this area. At present there is voluntary regulation, there is not even self-regulation by ISPs. However, a dispute resolution mechanism would facilitate everybody. If it does not work, people can go to the courts. I am not raising many issues, including pornography and criminal activity on the Internet.

They are matters for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

I am not raising those areas, I am dealing with relevant issues. There is a question about consumer protection and I will refer later to a specific point in relation to the Consumer Credit Act, 1995. If I make an e-commerce purchase of a book or a holiday, what on-line arbitration exists by way of consumer protection? This is a serious concern. Will the Director of Consumer Affairs, Carmel Foley, have any function in terms of electronic retail purchases? We need to make provision for a role in this legislation for the Director of Consumer Affairs to protect the individual. I know that, if I do my Christmas shopping on high streets such as Grafton Street or in Athlone or wherever, the law of the land will protect me. If I buy from an Irish company over the Internet – I understand it is different if I buy from a company in the Czech Republic or Panama, for example – will I have the consumer protection I would otherwise have? I refer especially to the 1991 Contractual Obligations (Applicable Law) Act, the Jurisdiction of Courts and Enforcement of Judgments (European Communities) Act, 1988, and the Jurisdiction of Courts and Enforcement of Judgments Act, 1993. Will these apply to electronic commerce? If they are not to, I will seek for them to apply.

Section 10 refers to exclusions and section 10(1)(b) states “the law governing the manner in which an interest in real property (including a leasehold interest in such property)”. I understand that, at the draft heads stage, the Incorporated Law Society and the Bar Council wanted property excluded and it appears on reading the paragraph that it is excluded. However, my legal advice is that the paragraph also states “other than contracts” and that this negatives all that goes before it. If I buy a house, that is dealt with by contract. Contracts are not excluded and my legal advice is that the wording is contradictory. While property is excluded, contracts are not and they cover property. I would like that clarified.

I studied the EU electronic commerce directive. I understand that it has yet to be formally agreed by the Council of Ministers but it appears settled in its terminology. On studying the text, a series of directives were included and another excluded. The basis for the exclusion is unclear, either from the Minister's speech or the debate in the Seanad. There is no provision for exclusion in terms of Directive No. 93/13 on unfair terms of consumer contracts. There is no provision for the directives on misleading advertising, comparative advertising, consumer credit, package travel, consumer product pricing, distance consumer contracts, tobacco advertising and medicinal products advertising. Of these, five are not implemented in international legislation.

Directive No. 87/102 on consumer credit is not excluded. We have implemented that directive through the Consumer Credit Act, 1995, and that was landmark legislation. Under that Act, if I obtain credit, it is a kernel of the law that there be a cooling-off period of ten days. If that trans action took place on-line and one read the conditions quickly and agreed to them, one might not notice the reference to the ten days, because it is different from receiving a hard copy. Many share dealings now take place on-line. People could agree to conditions on-line which they might not have had they known about them and they might have been more likely to have noticed them had they received written documentation.

We should examine the EU directives which have been implemented and section 10 and reform the procedure for electronic purchasing so that the terms of the Consumer Credit Act would still apply and a hard copy of the contract would have to be received within ten days. There is a difference between a credit agreement presented on screen and to which a consumer can agree electronically and a written agreement which is physically sent to a consumer. That a consumer receives a hard copy is cautionary to him or her. Furthermore, it is more conducive to skimming through and a consumer is more likely to spot the clear statement of the cooling-off period. Consumer credit is already offered on a large scale on the Internet. I note the growth of electronic stockbrokers offering significant credit. There is a need to protect the unwary, especially in times of exuberant markets.

I remind the Deputy that detailed debate of sections should be confined to Committee Stage.

If I was all over the place in my speech, the Acting Chairman would caution me for not being relevant. However, I will not go into much detail about European directives.

Section 22 deals with admissibility of evidence in court. The point at issue is whether a hard copy or an electronic copy would suffice. I will seek to insert in subparagraph (i) the wording "on the sole ground that it is not in its original form". In other words, an electronic copy should suffice. I am told that this has already been changed in criminal law and I seek for the same to apply here. The provision refers to the "best evidence" rule of evidence. This is a common law rule requiring the party seeking to rely on a document to produce the original document in question. The rule does not apply if the original has been destroyed or is otherwise impossible to obtain.

The application of the rule to electronic dealings is awkward. Where a hard copy document has been scanned and transmitted, for example, a technical certificate as to a goods of sale transaction, it requires one obtaining the original hard copy. Where a document was originally generated and transmitted in electronic form, identifying the original is difficult and pointless. If a court has no doubts as to the reliability of a copy, be it an electronic version of a document, the best evidence rule creates a pointless exercise. That is why the rule was abolished in criminal law under section 30 of the Criminal Evidence Act, 1992. Under that section, a copy of a document authenticated in such a manner as the court may approve may be given in evidence. However, as it stands, section 22 seems to enshrine the best evidence rule. It states that, if there is an original hard copy, one can rely on an electronic version only if one can satisfy the court the electronic version was the best evidence one could be reasonably expected to obtain. The balance of this provision is against the use of electronic versions. They are the poor relations. My amendment prevents a court from refusing to admit an electronic version on the sole ground that it is not in its original form. Perhaps the Minister would consider that.

The Deputy wishes to turn the section around.

Yes, so that the status of the electronic version would be improved.

I felt awkward about mentioning that part of the Bill in my initial contributions both here and in the Seanad. It appeared that there was a grudging acceptance.

As if it were second best?

Perhaps the Minister would examine that. I will table an amendment.

Section 29 deals with liability of certification providers. This provides for strict liability. No matter what, they are in the wrong. I was told it would be more sensible to include the words "if negligent". In other words, there may be circumstances where strict liability might be too harsh. If the amendment were to be accepted, the relevant wording would read "shall be liable if negligent".

Perhaps when the Minister replies she could answer some questions for me. I am a fan of Lennox Lewis but when I call up his site on the Internet I get stories about what fights he won two or three years ago. Out of date information and news stories are retained on the Internet. If I said outrageous things about the Minister, regardless of whether they are true, they could be printed on the Internet and left there for some time. Perhaps the Minister could clarify the position on defamation law.

Can mortgage contracts be done by electronic commerce? The EU electronic signatures directive was adopted in December 1999. Perhaps the Minister could clarify if we have incorporated the OECD guidelines on cryptography and if we have complied with certain legal aspects of the EU electronic commerce directive and the data protection directive.

As regards hackers, credit card fraud and viruses, such as the "I love you" virus which emanated from the Far East, what protection is there for e-commerce operators and individuals? The British are in a quagmire with their surveillance units, such as CID and MI5. I am not looking for that to be introduced here. However, disreputable people may become Internet service providers. We need an enabling provision which allows us to deal with hackers, fraudsters and people who design computer viruses.

I will shortly publish my party's proposals for e-living. I welcome global crossing and deregulation. Every Member received a letter recently from Esat Telecom about the local loop. In the provision of a full range of advanced telecommunications facilities, Eircom has sole access to the last leg of the loop, homes and businesses, except where broad band fibre optic cable has already been laid. We will not duplicate that network everywhere. The ODTR published a decision in April which stated there would be a restricted form of access to the local loop, called bitstream access, by April 2001. The telecommunications regulator stated she had no legal powers to mandate full unbundling. It is, therefore, imperative that the Government establishes the legal basis for that. I am told by those who are talking about bringing Sprint and Quest into the hub of e-commerce that full unbundling is the key to liberalisation. If the regulator says she does not have the legal powers to do so, it falls to the Minister to do something about it.

It needs primary legislation.

That would do more for competition as it would mean someone could rent the line from Eircom and pay it a fair price.

If we can introduce global crossing, we should also have a national plan of broad band access to schools, not just around the perimeter of Dublin but throughout the country. I understand the Government paid £60 million and will charge businesses for global crossing.

The Government should introduce income tax credits or social welfare subsidies so that more homes can buy personal computers. There is an excellent model in Sweden. A fund should be established in disadvantaged areas and rural communities. This was done in Ennis which won the Telecom Éireann competition. I would like to see that expanded to other areas.

The Minister might consider an earlier date on the four year exclusivity of Cablelink, which NTL owns. That would help to open up the area of convergence technology. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, through IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, must attract high speed Internet access operators and infrastructure service providers to this country. I am thinking of tier one operators, such as Quest, and others, such as Sprint. We should not be complacent as more needs to be done. Free Internet access is a reality in most European states. It would be a great help if it was available here by the end of the year.

Mr. Tony Blair, through the Minister mentioned and Mr. Peter Mandelson before that, set specific targets that by 2002 50% of all civil servants would be accessible through e-mail and that all payments could be done on-line. We need a single gateway point so that people can log on to the Government site and access information relating to social welfare, tax, small business development and education. We also need a specific training and investment programme in each Department, VAT refunds for the disabled and for technology purchases and a home working allowance to encourage it.

I agree with the Minister on the domain name. We need a quality brand which is authentically Irish and recognised internationally for its excellence. We need to put some thought into it and to market it properly.

Skills and people shortages are a big problem. A specific programme will be required for graduate engineers and to increase the participation of females. Some 52% of all students are females, yet they only represent 30% of workers in the high-technology area. That must be changed if we want to meet future demands.

Small business initiatives are also needed. The first £100,000 of profits from e-business should be at a lower rate of tax. E-incubators would help small business to become established. Stock options could be taxed at capital gains tax rates rather than marginal income tax rates.

We have not debated e-commerce before. A half an hour is not long enough for the principal spokespersons as this is a serious debate. I welcome the Bill and I will support its speedy enactment. However, there are specific gaps in the legislation and some sections could be reworded. We all support e-commerce but that does not mean a reasonable and limited amount of personal protections should not be put in place at the same time.

Fáiltím roimh an mBille um Thráchtáil Leictreonach, 2000. Tá an Bille tráthúil agus tábhachtach. Láidreoidh an Bille an reachtaíocht sa Stát seo a bhaineann le cúrsaí tráchtála leictreonach. Tá an tír seo láidir, ó thaobh aois nua seo na fáisnéise agus, le cúnamh Dé, cabhróidh an Bille le caomhnú agus forbairt chumas na tíre seo i gcúrsaí tráchtála leictreonach. Athraíonn an teicneolaíocht seo go tobann agus bíonn daoine caillte go minic, chomh casta is atá sé. Beidh an Lucht Oibre ag cabhrú leis an Aire an Bille a sheoladh tríd an Teach, chomh luath agus is féidir.

On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the Bill. I compliment the Minister for the way she has handled it during its gestation. The consultation period was useful and exhaustive and the briefing which spokespersons received from her officials some months ago was valuable. It was clear what the Minister intended to achieve at an early stage.

This is a substantial Bill which, when passed into law, should enhance Ireland's position in terms of competing in the information age. Ireland already has a substantial advantage over our European partners in terms of competitiveness in this new age. That this country domi nates foreign direct investment in the electronic area and that 44% of software projects locate here is a good measure of our high development base. Approximately 40% of all packaged software and 60% of all business applications software produced in Europe is made in Ireland. We are also dominant in the teleservices industry, with 28% of all European investment based in Ireland. It is apparent that this country has an excellent base to protect and further develop.

Technology changes so rapidly that it must always be our target to be at the cutting edge of development. The Bill seeks to create a legal framework for electronic commerce and facilitate growth. The Labour Party will co-operate in enabling its early passage into law and we hope it will have the desired effect in terms of enhancing trust and confidence in this country's electronic commerce environment.

Will the Minister clarify whether the Bill will adequately cover the various identifiable difficulties which could possibly arise from the convergence of Internet, broadcasting and telephony services? Given that the same item of equipment will probably serve as the vehicle by which these services will be delivered in the future, is it possible that security difficulties will emerge? I fully accept that seeking to foretell the future of this area, where the pace of change is so rapid and bewildering, will not be easy. Nonetheless, we should seek to use legislation to close off areas of possible difficulty.

Will the Minister provide further assurances in respect of the points which have already been raised in this debate in respect of security and privacy? With the enactment of the legislation we will move away from a paper based commerce environment to an electronic alternative. When changes take place there is always a danger that leakages might occur. Will the Minister indicate the extent to which this matter has been examined in depth? The flexible approach adopted by the Minister, whereby she has indicated that she will be neither overly prescriptive or heavy-handed, is good. However, the Labour Party is concerned that people's privacy may be invaded. I will return to this matter later.

While welcoming the information age, we must realise that IT access for all must be a fundamental tenet of the legal framework which regulates electronic commerce and transactions in Ireland. In that context, I wish to consider another aspect of the Minister's brief – I accept that responsibility for it also lies with another Department – namely, digital television. A regime is developing under which there will be an expansion in subscription and pay-per-view television services. The Labour Party is of the opinion that we are failing in our duty to the electorate if access to all television programming does not come within the comfortable reach of all citizens.

I welcome the recent initiative to make Internet access available in public libraries. Will the Minister indicate the extent to which rural post offices, sub-post offices, etc., can become involved in electronic commerce? A great deal of aspirational comment is made about this area. However, it is difficult to identify from where potential business might emanate to provide additional income to these post offices which, as the Minister is aware, are coming under increasing pressure. I will be interested to hear her comments on this matter.

The March report of the Information Society Commission outlines a number of themes which consistently arose in the 50 submissions it received in response to its discussion document on IT access for all. The needs identified were: to promote general access to information and communications technology across the community; to identify the social benefits of information and communications technology; to couple access to new technology with training for the general public; and to target disadvantaged and marginalised areas.

The Bill deals with electronic commerce as it affects large and small industries, etc. I suspect that the extent to which this medium will be accessible to the general public or to which members of the public will wish to avail of it will not be great. As the Minister stated, however, electronic commerce can have the effect of reversing a trend which has held sway for a number of centuries by encouraging people to move away from urban areas and return to rural areas. Everyone would welcome such a development. Does the Bill contain a specific mechanism to facilitate this process? I do not believe it does but I understand, to a large extent, why that is the case.

Will the Minister comment on how it is proposed to target disadvantaged and marginalised groups? Is there any guarantee that people who wish to leave urban areas and return to rural areas to pursue their livelihoods will not suffer financially as a result? Does the Minister believe the issue of identifying the social benefits of information and communications technology should be addressed in the Bill?

An interesting survey was conducted by the MRBI on behalf of the Information Society Commission in late August of last year. One finding, which must give rise to concern, is that only 39% of people felt confident that Government agencies would not misuse personal information held about them. That is quite alarming. In addition, 62% of those questioned were concerned about organisations in general holding personal information about them on computer. This leads me back to the question of people's civil rights, their security and their privacy. I want the Bill to be strengthened in every possible way in order to ensure that these are protected. The Minister's reply to the debate will have a bearing on the amendments the Labour Party will consider tabling on Committee Stage.

The MRBI poll describes an attitude of mind which needs to be addressed in order that we can gain the maximum benefit from developments in e-commerce. If people are suspicious of a new technology difficulties may arise and they may be hesitant about or less than committed to embracing something which will be of great benefit to the country.

Although 57% of Irish people felt they would be in a position to take advantage of the work and lifestyle changes which would arise from new technologies, when they were asked whether they felt changes to information and communications technology would make their jobs and lifestyle more secure, 36% agreed that it would, 35% disagreed and 29% did not know. There is an underlying concern here that this type of technology may result in jobs being suppressed and that we should be careful not to become overly technical.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is due to introduce an Bille um cheartanna Gaeilge, the Irish language rights Bill. Has the Minister held any discussions with Deputy de Valera in regard to people being able to transact their business with State Departments, local authorities and health boards through Irish? Obviously, this would be a very important aspect of the Bill.

I referred to the issues of security and privacy and complimented the Minister on the innovative approach which was developed in that regard. The interpretations section of the Bill is one of the most difficult I have ever read. Some of the terminology used will inevitably need to be changed in the future. The Minster's point about this Bill being enabling legislation is relevant in this context because she will have the power to adapt as situations change.

The poll carried out by MRBI on behalf of the Information Technology Commission showed that in the year 1998-99, Internet access doubled from 16% to 33%. We are probably heading towards 40% and that is to be welcomed.

The Minister dealt very adequately with the various sections of the Bill and I would like to see it passing into law as soon as possible. The Minister stressed the urgency of this Bill which will allow the success of this area of our economy to be built upon. The concerns expressed on this side of the House about privacy and security are very real and must be addressed.

I welcome the highly successful innovation in regard to the Internet discussion forum which lays the foundations for future legislation. I wish the Minister every success with the Bill. We will return to it in a very positive and constructive manner on Committee Stage and will assist the Minister to put the best possible Bill on the Statute Book without delay.

Is cúis áthas dom a bheith anseo chun labhairt faoin mBille seo. Gabhaim comhgháirdeachas leis an Aire agus leis an Roinn as ucht an sárobair a rinne siad ar an mBille agus as ucht an comhoibriú atá ar fáil faoin mBille agus faoi na heachtraí a bheidh ag tárlú tar éis an Bhille.

The Electronic Commerce Bill is designed to create a legal framework to facilitate the growth of electronic commerce and electronic transactions in Ireland. This framework will help to engender trust and confidence in the Irish electronic commerce environment. The Bill is intended to meet one of the key priorities of this Government by providing comprehensive legislation which addresses many of the legal issues which have arisen as a result of the development of electronic commerce. It also implements the provisions of two EU directives, namely the directive relating to electronic signatures and part of the recently adopted electronic commerce directive.

This legislation is a proud achievement which has been welcomed widely in the industry and has received favorable reviews from many commentators. I was glad to note that the Bill was broadly welcomed in the Seanad and by the Members who have spoken already today. While it sets out standards and technical provisions for e-commerce transactions, it does much more than that. It represents a bold move into a new era, clearly indicating the direction we wish to take as a country.

The legislation clearly indicates that Ireland is ready and prepared for e-commerce and is not taking a "wait and see" approach. We want to see the benefits of e-commerce fully applied to broad areas of public and private law and we want to see the benefits of e-commerce taking hold in business and public administration. This legislation is part of this Government's strategy to prepare Ireland for the digital economy. We have an integrated, well resourced set of measures and initiatives, firmly placed within a strategy enhanced by foresight, imagination and ambition, for the future economic development of this country.

As my Government colleague, the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, stated, we now have the necessary infrastructure, providing broad-band connectivity, to link Ireland to global markets. Geographical and physical boundaries are no longer inhibiting issues. The issue which will determine our future competitiveness will be how we harness the potential of new technologies and use them to enhance economic welfare and the social economy for all our citizens.

I propose to outline a number of interlocking policy areas which come into play in this area. One of the key areas relates to the need to ensure a supportive legal and regulatory environment. The Electronic Commerce Bill has been hailed as an instrument which will positively support and enable e-commerce. We have avoided the heavy-handed approach and have created a key enabling instrument for the development of e-commerce. However, e-commerce does not occur within a vacuum but rather within the framework of existing laws.

We recognise that trust and confidence are essential ingredients for the development of e-commerce. There is a need for robust laws to protect copyright, privacy and the rights of the consumer in cases where new technology gives rise to new uncertainties. I will refer to three measures in particular. Deputies will be aware that the Copyright Bill has passed Committee Stage and is due to report to the Dáil on 31May. This Bill sets out to put in place a modern regime of statutory protection for copyright and related rights, including civil remedies and criminal sanctions. It contains a number of specific measures, directed at protecting rights in the information age. These include measures against "smart card" forgery and measures which support rights management, such as digital fingerprinting in electronic copies of copyright works.

Our existing data protection laws give rights to individuals to protect them against the misuse of personal information held on computers. This law, the Data Protection Act, 1988 also places obligations of care on those who keep personal information about individuals. This law will be supplemented by new measures in a Bill, to be published by July next, which will provide additional protections by strengthening the rights of citizens to information and to be in a position to object to the processing of information.

Further new measures to be introduced later this year will provide additional rights to consumers who shop on the Internet. These measures stem from EU directives and will ensure that consumers have full information about who they are dealing with, including the price and delivery costs of their Internet purchases.

It is clear that we are now poised to take advantage of the digital revolution and that there are real benefits for business, the consumer and public administration. It is imperative that this advantage is built against the backdrop of a favourable legislative and regulatory environment.

Our national economy has undergone rapid and spectacular transformation. The 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s were notable in Ireland for, among other things, energy crises, inflation, unemployment and emigration. Today, Ireland is seen as a success story in a Europe where the main players are still trying to pull themselves out of a stagnant period. Throughout Europe, Ireland's recent economic success has been the subject of much positive comment. This success story did not happen overnight but developed over the past 30 years. In that time our economy has undergone dramatic changes, from a heavy reliance on agriculture in the 1960s, an influx of foreign direct investment in the 1970s and 1980s through to the modern digital economy which began to emerge in the late 1990s.

Our recent strong economic performance and our enterprise culture are grounded in a success ful system of social partnership, together with strong and consistent pro-enterprise policies. These include a stable political and policy environment, prudent management of the public finances, investment in key infrastructure, the provision of a well educated and flexible work force, a low business corporation tax regime and the development of an open economy exporting 92 per cent of GDP. All this is set in the context of membership of, and a firm commitment to, the European Union and a conviction that employment through enterprise provides the best model for sharing our economic success.

From a situation only 20 years ago when advanced communications technology meant push button telephones, the use of advanced information communications technologies or ICTs has become the most significant driver of world economic growth. ICTs are the catalysts through which enterprise, whether traditional or new, can create sustained competitive advantage for its products and services on world markets. ICTs are also the catalysts through which enterprise can create quality and sustainable employment.

We have a strong base from which to move forward. We have been successful in attracting significant foreign investment in electronics and software, among other areas. According to the OECD, Ireland is the world's largest exporter of software. Nineteen of the top 25 computer companies in the world have located in Ireland and in recent weeks we have seen global leaders in the ICT area locating their e-commerce activities in Ireland. Almost one third of all PCs sold in Europe are made in Ireland.

To set the scene and to prepare the environment for this new economy, we have recognised the need for a broad based, multi-disciplinary approach to the new challenges presented by the information society. Five priority areas have been identified and are being developed to ensure Ireland retains its place and builds global competitiveness in the new digital economy. These are: telecommunications infrastructure and costs; education in the use of ICTs; upskilling the existing business sector; effective regulation and research and development. This Government is taking a proactive and integrated approach to meeting the challenges presented by the new technologies. Significant advances have been made in all major areas connected with the e-business agenda. I will now briefly outline the main features and actions being taken in these priority areas.

As a small island on the western fringes of Europe, Ireland has successfully overcome some obvious disadvantages in terms of international trade. However, in these days of advanced communications, the global marketplace knows no physical boundaries and is restricted only by the capacity of a country's connection to the world-wide web. The recent agreement with Global Crossing, providing Ireland with international broadband connectivity, will enable us to provide up to 15 times the current international capacity out of Ireland at one tenth of the existing unit cost levels. It will mean we will become an integral part of a world class communications chain running from the USA to Ireland and onward to 24 European cities.

The development of a top class telecommunications infrastructure must be accompanied by low cost telecommunication charges driven by competition. This Government is actively pushing for low cost Internet access for Irish businesses and consumers in order to increase dramatically our Internet usage levels. In this context, I warmly welcome the decision of the Supreme Court last week and we can now look forward to what I hope will be vigorous competition in the mobile phone service market.

The inherently global nature of modern communication technologies will do away with the obstacle of distance. Our peripheral location in Europe, previously seen as an obstacle to development and access to markets, is less so today. Global markets are available from the desktops anywhere in Ireland. This presents exciting opportunities for small Irish business and for regional development.

Many have already taken advantage of the new market possibilities. Small businesses who act flexibly, quickly adapting to a rapidly changing environment and responding to new market conditions, can transform their business almost overnight. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and its agencies, Enterprise Ireland and the city and county enterprise boards, are helping business to achieve this.

The e-business initiative that Enterprise Ireland launched last October is now in full flow. The main elements of this initiative are to promote awareness and understanding of the significance and business implications of e-commerce and e-business, to assist clients, especially those in traditional industry sectors, in developing an appropriate Internet strategy and presence and to generate a stream of Internet related investment projects from the software and high tech sectors. These goals are being achieved through a series of focused workshops for Enterprise Ireland clients, through incentives to develop corporate websites and through Enterprise Ireland's e-business resource website which provides the information a business needs to know about doing business online.

Enterprise Ireland has also established a £10 million e-business fund to boost the number of Irish companies transacting business across electronic networks. This initiative will operate over a two year time frame It is designed to facilitate the rapid development of significant scale projects within existing businesses in the manufacturing and international services sectors to enable them to trade electronically.

The city and county enterprise boards are currently developing an e-commerce initiative for their client base which will be launched later this year. This initiative involves all 35 city and county enterprise boards in providing services and incentives which will increase the use of the Internet, e-mail and e-commerce among small businesses. I am also allocating a new fund of £3 million for e-commerce initiatives in the micro-enterprise sector. This fund will be administered by the city and county enterprise boards.

Awareness raising events are being held throughout the country involving co-operation between various Government Departments, State agencies, the information society commission, IBEC, the IDA and the chambers of commerce. This is part of a broader strategy aimed at building up a critical mass of information and communication technology users in order to develop trust and confidence in e-commerce for business and the population of Ireland as a whole.

Investment in the technological infrastructure must be accompanied by investment in people. In response to the expert group on future skills needs, the Government has allocated a total of £411 million to various educational initiatives designed to develop appropriate skills, to promote innovation and to provide an additional 5,400 new third level college places in high technology courses over the next four years.

The training agency FÁS in the recently launched FIT – fast track to IT – will help 3,500 long-term unemployed persons to secure a job in the IT industry over three years and help meet emerging skill shortages. The Government is also participating in a joint initiative with the universities and IBEC which will provide an extra 1,500 postgraduate places aimed at meeting skills needs in the area of ICTs. The technology investment fund is making £250 million available over a three year period to renew and modernise third level infrastructure. The schools IT initiative, under which the Government is investing £81 million, will facilitate the integration of ICTs into Ireland's schools, including the provision of hardware and support services in schools and skills development for teachers.

Preparing Ireland for the demands of tomorrow also requires strong investment in research and development. We recently launched a £560 million technology foresight fund that will be used to establish Ireland as a location for world class research excellence in niche areas within ICTs and biotechnology. In addition, a dedicated research foundation will be established to evaluate research projects and to manage and allocate funding. This new fund is an integral part of the Government's new industrial development strategy. It will be used to develop Ireland as a dynamic location for innovation, particularly in the technologies of tomorrow.

Industry and related international investment are becoming increasingly knowledge based as new research and technologies translate into global products and services. Our focus now is on building new sources of competitive advantage for indigenous companies and on ensuring that Ireland becomes one of Europe's most attractive locations for knowledge based, high tech enterprise. Future competitiveness will depend on the creation and utilisation of new ideas. Ireland must lead and be to the forefront in areas where we have particular strengths. We will continue to pursue world class standards and be industry focused. With this broad based and well funded set of initiatives there can be little doubt about the Government's commitment to make IT the spearhead of the new economy.

The popular term e-commerce can be loosely defined as buying and selling goods and services on the Internet. This certainly is part of e-business, but the true concept of e-business goes into the heart of how an organisation works. The on-line relationship of a company with both its suppliers and its customers allows products and services to be delivered faster and at a lower cost.

The real advantage for a company adapting to e-business lies in the back office and supply chain systems. E-business seamlessly moves data and information over networks bringing together previously separate groups, both inside and outside the company. It provides instant information, allowing companies to identify their best selling items or their least productive operation and to modify their business processes to maximise profits.

E-business is a new concept and one to which companies must adapt if they are to survive. In a few years all business will be e-business. It is our task to ensure that business reaps the benefits of the new information communication technologies.

E-business is not just for big business or just for technology companies. Recent figures available to us show that e-business awareness is high and that Internet access of those small to medium sized firms surveyed is at 69%. These figures are encouraging. The majority of companies, however, still need to make that jump to a full e-business strategy. Government and agency information and awareness campaigns and conferences will help companies make this leap forward.

The growth in the use of ICTs and the development of e-business is forging ahead and leaving the older forms of business behind. However, in doing so this creates other uncertainties which need to be dealt with swiftly to ensure that Ireland is a leading player in the global marketplace. Uncertainties such as the electronic form of contracts and their recognition in law, the differences between paper and electronic documents, the use and verification of electronic signatures, the verification of dispatch and receipt of electronic communications, particularly for contract purposes, the growth of service providers in this area and the liability issues which arise raise various concerns and uncertainties which could become obstacles to the development of e-commerce.

The Electronic Commerce Bill, 2000, is designed to create a legal framework for electronic commerce to facilitate the growth of elec tronic commerce and electronic transactions in Ireland. The Bill was first mooted in the programme for Government, An Action Programme for the Millennium, as reviewed last November, a key priority of which is "to promote a pro-competitive environment in which e-business will flourish and to legislate for electronic signatures and contracts". The Bill is intended to meet this priority by providing comprehensive legislation which addresses many of the legal issues which have arisen as a result of electronic commerce and puts the matters beyond doubt.

EU legislation has a strong influence on domestic legislation, and the Electronic Commerce Bill is no exception. It transposes the provisions of the Electronic Signatures Directive and certain articles of the recently agreed Electronic Commerce Directive into domestic law. It implements provisions of the Electronic Commerce Directive, which has only been agreed this month. Although we have a further 18 months in which to implement this directive, early transposition is essential to keep Ireland to the forefront in e-business.

The House has already heard in detail about the provisions of the Bill from my Government colleague, the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, and I do not wish to dwell much further on its provisions. Essentially, the Bill provides for equivalence between the electronic and the paper worlds. It gives the Minister for Public Enterprise the power to place the registration of any Irish Internet domain names on a statutory basis. The two-letter code currently assigned to Ireland for domain names is ".ie". It is not clear at this stage whether such regulations will by implemented. However, it is felt prudent to provide for the power to do so at this stage.

A top level domain name is a national resource which should be managed in both the public interest and in the interests of the Internet community. It is important to tackle the abuse of the domain name system such as cybersquatting. The Bill will ensure that control mechanisms can be put in place, if necessary, at any time in the future.

E-government can play a role in supporting the new digital revolution and benefits can be achieved. These new technologies are transforming the way Departments and agencies interact with citizens. The use of these new technology systems has the potential to improve the way in which government delivers its services, both in terms of speed and efficiency. Effective use of websites and e-mail has the capacity to bring government closer to citizens. The Electronic Commerce Bill will pave the way for the acceleration of public services on-line.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is well advanced in preparing these new services. The Companies Office is well prepared for the roll out of web-based services. We are also building an electronic information desk for business, connecting all Government services and information which business requires. In the wider public service, the Revenue on-line service for processing a range of tax returns will be available in the autumn and the Land Registry on-line service was launched in October last. More recently, my Government colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, sought to stretch the ambitions of local authorities by making the best use of changing technology. He put in place a £5 million fund to accelerate change. One practical measure will be that planning applications will be available on-line, including maps, ensuring that citizens will be able to track the progress of planning applications on-line.

The Government is fully committed to asserting its leadership role in this new digital economy by accelerating the move towards the on-line delivery of public services. In this day and age it should no longer be necessary for citizens to access government services, both central and local, by being passed around from office to office. The technology is now available to us and will be used for the benefit of all citizens. It will be used to bring government closer to the people. This legislation will most certainly help in this task.

That the Bill was agreed last November is a tribute to the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke who tabled it, and the officials in her Department. It is a broad-ranging Bill. I congratulate her for the work she has done and thank her and her Department for co-operating with my Department to ensure that the Bill would be current, relevant and of practical benefit to the people immediately and in the years ahead.

I am delighted to see the two Ministers getting on so well and praising one another.

I did not get a chance.

It is really a sign of unity in Government and I like to see that.

There is strong unity.

E-commerce is an exciting new opportunity for all enterprises from the local corner store to the large software companies. A couple of years ago few business people had given much thought to the implications of the Internet. Suddenly e-business is everywhere. Even small shops and post offices are involved. Earlier Deputy O'Shea mentioned this. I hope all small post offices, which are a cause of concern for everybody, will become involved in e-commerce in order that they will be able to handle banking, the planning permissions to which the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, referred, and all kinds of problems with State agencies. It is the Government's job to make sure that all State agencies, the county councils, the Department of the Environment and Local Government, the Department of Health and Children, the health boards, etc., are geared for e-commerce so that people who want to use the Internet to conduct business or access services will be able to do so.

My big concern is the same as that of most people, that people are afraid of change.

That is the big worry. As one gets older one wants to leave things as they are. The young people have no worries because they have recently come through the educational system. My children can operate the Internet. They have no difficulty with it and they do not have any worries about it. It is people who have been in business for many years who are worried. I was glad to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, state that he would provide funding for retraining to enable more people to access whatever information they want from whatever quarter. People must be encouraged and helped to enter into this new era in the new millennium.

Many people are worried by what happened last week when one person in a far corner of the world sent a message by e-mail and the system throughout the world was upset. A man who visited my clinic rightly pointed out that the Internet and e-mail is all very well but some day somebody will be able to connect to another person's bank account and withdraw money or private information. Theft is the big danger. I am glad the Bill is before the Dáil. I expect that over the coming years we will see many more such Bills. This is a new information age and we will see an ever increasing amount of technology being introduced. As a result, we will see more problems like those of last week or the week before, where people will be able to gain access to and extract people's private information. That is what most worries people.

Electronic commerce is worth approximately £14 billion. By the year 2001, it is expected that it will be worth £400 billion. We are fortunate in having well educated young people who are able to take on any challenge. I want Ireland to be the e-commerce capital of Europe. We should be ready for the challenge of e-commerce and when I listen to the proposals of the Minister and Minister of State I am convinced that we are ready it.

Textiles was one of the biggest industries in Ireland 20 years ago. My father worked for Westport Textiles, which was opened by Seán Lemass, from the day the factory opened until it closed. From that day he was out of employment. There were textile factories in every corner of Ireland. At present, American companies are establishing the importance of e-commerce as the new industry in the Irish economy. Our great worry is that the industry might suffer a decline or that some new invention will make it obsolete. People are concerned at the speed of our economic growth and at the rate of change in our society. I ask the Government to take every possible step to ensure the security of all information stored electronically. It is difficult to believe what happened recently when an individual in a distant country came close to destroying the Internet throughout the world and caused great anxiety to many people who had invested huge amounts of money in IT equipment and who were worried that important information might be lost.

Many people use the Internet for shopping. What effect will this trend have on our economy? In the past, small businesses carried on their trade, paid taxes to the Government and rates to local authorities. What is the situation with regard to shopping from foreign suppliersvia the Internet? Deputy Yates mentioned the question of protection for purchasers of goods through the Internet. We see advertisements nightly on television channels for goods which can be bought by this method. The problems which will arise from this trade must be faced in the future. There is considerable concern that important information which is stored electronically may be accessed by criminals.

We must encourage small business people who have received very little assistance from the State. Large companies receive various grants but small business people have not ever received adequate support from the State. The Government should assist them to use the Internet and encourage them in using e-commerce. The county enterprise boards do much good work but they must do more to retrain small business people for e-commerce which will be the industry of the future. Anyone who cannot use the new technology will be left behind. Young people have no difficulty with the new forms of technology but older people require help.

Electronic commerce could greatly help small rural post offices. Within the past week the small village of Drummin, in County Mayo, lost its post office. The Minister knows the village because she visited it as Minister for Education. The post office was a lifeline for the village.

Did no one come forward to take over the post office?

No. That was the problem. I cannot blame the Government for what happened. The vacancy was advertised on three different occasions. The Government could, however, do something to deal with the problem of salaries for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. No one can be expected to work for five and half days per week in a small rural post office for less than £60 per week. The volume of trade was not sufficient to make running the post office worthwhile. If small rural post offices could be allowed to provide other services, such as banking or accepting planning applications on behalf of local authorities, they could be made viable. If rural communities are to survive, services must be provided. Small rural communities must be helped to make use of modern electronic technology.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Fleming.

I welcome the introduction of the Electronic Commerce Bill, 2000. It shows that the Government is computer literate and capable of developing the legislative infrastructure at the pace at which providers of information and communications technology infrastructure are working. My message for those in the high technology industry is that we will roll out the legal framework for the e-world as fast as they can roll out the technology.

Fianna Fáil in Government can claim to be a world leader in the information age. The recently published popular science book,The Code Book by the English author, Simon Singh, describes the history of codes and ciphers up to the age of encryption for electronic commerce. Only two world leaders merit any mention in The Code Book. They are Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern, for their historic first signing by electronic means of an international agreement in Dublin during President Clinton's most recent visit to Ireland. This Bill is necessary to provide the legal framework in which we can all sign such agreements electronically, secure in the knowledge of privacy and of legal recognition of the resulting contract.

To my knowledge, I was the first candidate for Dáil Éireann to put up a campaign website. Senator O'Toole was ahead of me but I led the Dáil into the Internet. I recently changed my website to keep up with my colleagues who have introduced them. As a small businessman I have been committed to the world of e-commerce since 1996. A business person cannot afford to ignore the market place. The Internet, and specifically the world-wide web part, has become more than an advertising medium. It is a genuine market place where a person can buy and sell goods and services. Electronic commerce means money changing hands. Like any financial dealings, e-commerce requires a legal and regulatory framework. The Bill also has implications for the law and will put an end to the kind of farce we have had in the courts where, for example, computer generated parking summonses have been rejected in certain District Courts as having no legal authority.

I will make a number of general points about the approach we are taking in the field of electronic commerce. Electronic commerce depends on secure encryption. The encoding of electronic documents is essential to ensure that not only are they read by those who are supposed to read them, but more importantly, that they are not tampered with in transit so that they can be certified to come from the person they say they come from and not somebody else. That is why one can ensure that when one types credit card information into the computer only the person who is supposed to receive the information will do so and that when it is received he or she can trust it has been sent by the owner of the credit card.

Other countries have taken a backward approach to encryption. One would expect countries who have not had a history of democracy or who are currently dictatorships, like China, to be mistrustful of their citizens and to try to limit their privacy or eavesdrop on their correspondence. However, it is a surprise when democracies take this approach. Among these the US, acting principally under the influence of the National Security Agency, the NSA, is the leading opponent of the ability of so-called strong encryption technology. It has made repeated attempts to limit the export of such technology from its own country and it denies it to its citizens. That is its sovereign right, but interfering in the exports of other countries with more liberal encryption regimes is not. Acting under the same influence from its intelligence agencies, Britain takes a similar if less intolerant line.

It is hardly surprising that the US and UK Governments have been found to be eavesdropping on the electronic traffic of other countries through the Echelon system, which is essentially a tool of the English speaking countries. It is almost certainly used to spy on the commercial correspondence of other countries to the advantage of the major companies in the Echelon countries. This practice is a US-European activity.

We need the strongest encryption technology to protect ourselves from the unacceptable face of industrial espionage. The Bill will ensure that most of Ireland will have access to the best electronic security. We will have access to encryption and, more importantly, the law will protect our right to hold on to the keys of this encryption.

In the US, at the behest of the NSA, the concept of key escrow has long been debated. The "key" is the coding information which enables the coded message to be read while "escrow" is an old word describing a legal procedure in which a document or a key, for example, is deposited with a trusted third party to be released to another party under certain conditions. In key escrow the US Government was considering – I am not certain of the precise status of the US proposals at present – the idea that a person sending a secure electronic commerce document or other encrypted message would be legally required to hand the key for the message over to what would effectively be a Government accessible agency so that the Government or its agents could read the message if it choose to. This Bill excludes that concept in section 26. I welcome that.

Commercial interests will not base themselves in countries which have defective legal frameworks and protections for electronic commerce. The US and UK Governments are shooting themselves in the foot by restricting encryption and the right to privacy. It is hard to believe that such leading countries could impose sanctions on their development. As a country with a large English speaking, technically competent work force there is an opportunity for us here.

Turning to the specifics of the Bill, section 9 deals with electronic commerce and provides that the provisions will have legal effect. This is a wide ranging section which brings the law into the 21st century. There are exceptions covering wills, con veyancing documents, affidavits or sworn declarations and court documents, but it is left open to the Minister to extend electronic documentation to these areas when the technology is up to the job.

Section 12 allows members of the public to supply information by electronic means. Again, this is subject to reasonable exceptions. I am informed that the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy Ó Cuív, had this vision in the late 1980s, long before most people had heard of Al Gore. However, this section needs to be looked at in the context of the proposal to use electronic voting machines.

Sections 13 and 14 provide for the use of electronic signatures to be used while section 15 makes similar provision for the use of electronic seals. Section 16 provides for the use of electronic documents as the original document and section 17 provides for electronic documents to be used as the copy for archiving and production for legal purposes. Section 18 provides for the use of electronic contracts.

I welcome section 19, which provides for the attribution of the origin of the electronic correspondences and replies to them. Section 21 defines in law when the correspondence is deemed to have been sent and delivered and to where. That is like establishing a kind of postal service, except it would be in cyber space rather than real space. Not many would be working in it.

Section 22 allows electronic documents to be admissible in evidence. This has clear implications in libel law. Section 23 will reassure many people. It means that nobody is forced to use electronic documents. Will this give people the right to insist on a paper ballot paper rather than using electronic voting machines? There is a need to resolve this on Committee Stage.

Section 24 will outlaw electronic fraud and section 25 gives the Garda powers of investigation. Section 26 sets out the most important protection of citizens' rights in the Bill. I commend the Government, especially the Minister, on its courage and foresight in framing this provision. It excludes key escrow, which means that one's privacy is one's right.

Sections 27 and 28 regulate the certification service providers and they must be carefully considered on Committee Stage. These are the notaries public of the Internet.

Section 29 is of great current interest as it regulates the Irish domain name registration. This is basically the Irish web equivalent of the telephone book. Many Members would wish that we controlled the US dot.com domain also as we have witnessed wholesale abuse of this register. An international treaty is urgently needed to withdraw the licence to use a domain name by an owner who, for example, permits libellous, indecent or blasphemous matters to be distributed on a site. I am sure this would solve the problem recently referred to by the Taoiseach.

In commending the Bill I appeal to the committee dealing with it to get good legal and information technology advice and to scrutinise the Bill carefully as it is of immense importance in the protection of commerce. I again commend the Minister for introducing it to the House so swiftly.

I welcome this Bill. It is timely that it should be before the Dáil for consideration. I was pleased to receive today in the post a document from the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland which deals with an extensive survey by it on the small and medium enterprises dealing with the question of electronic commerce. We could usefully spend time studying it before Committee Stage.

We need to put e-commerce on a sound and secure footing. This is enabling legislation for that. It is the first in what will be a series of important legislative measures. In the years and decades ahead many further legislative provisions on e-commerce will be introduced.

It is important to recognise that the Government is playing its part in relation to e-commerce and in doing business with the community on-line. The Revenue has outstanding facilities in this regard. The Land Registry has recently launched an initiative with regard to its dealings.

Debate adjourned.