Electronic Signature Act - Czech Republic implementation hiccups

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic claims to be the third country in the world to pass electronic signature legislation, leaving most of the European Union and even United States behind. No matter how plausible were the efforts of a few young politicians to push the Electronic Signature Act (ESA) through the legislative process and thus bring the Czech legislation into the forefront of e-business world, nothing much has changed since October 1, 2000 when the Act came into force.

Drafters of the ESA were inspired by the UN (UNICTRAL) and EC framing regulations (1999/93/EC), which were introduced to stimulate governments to harmonise their legal systems in order to follow the fast pace of technology progress. The main priorities of the legislation were to amend some of the key provisions of the Czech legal system, to equalize and bring e-documents onto a par with written ones, to increase the growth of e-business and last but not least to simplify and improve the interaction between citizens and government through electronic means.

The ESA aims to implement a "legal order" into the usage of electronic signature by introducing definitions for key terms such as electronic signature, qualified certificate, certified data message, etc. Although the act does not specify one particular "legal" way to sign and authorise e-documents, it should increase security and trust in e-documents and further enable the enforcement of possible claims arising from electronic signing and sender's authentication. Implementing provisions, which would regulate the certification authorities in more details are still being awaited and it will be at least another few weeks or even months before they appear.

The social democratic government, in conformity with the recent eEurope+ initiativeFootnote 1 of EU accession countries, strives to open up the state authority gates to electronic scrutiny. As Karel Březina, cabinet member responsible for information policy, says, he would like to see taxes being returned electronically in the year 2002. A pilot program has already been started on the communal level at one of the Prague district town councils. Inhabitants of the district can ask for information, file a request on a building licence or exercise other minor submissions without an electronic signature being requested. Although the draft of the government directive provides for so called electronic mailing rooms at state and local levels, it lacks the important amendments to the legal process regulations, which would give e-documents the same standing as paper ones and widen the range of state-to-citizen interaction.

In the meantime people are questioning whether there is any point in concentrating on something like e-Government in the Czech Republic, when the ratio of people owning computers or browsing the internet still remains much lower in comparison with EU countries and the United States. About 25 percent of all households (930,000) have a computer at home and just over a third of them (380,000) are connected to the internet. Although these figures show the Czech Republic to be ahead of its Central and Eastern Europe neighbours, a great deal of work still needs to be done to increase computer literacy. It is still difficult for the majority of people to understand the concept of electronic signature, and only a few would find an electronically signed and authorised contract as credible as a printed and traditionally signed version of it.

Although Czech legislators seem to be optimistic about the changes, it seems beyond any doubt that the battle to build a 21st century Czech e-Society is still too early to call.

For further information, please contact Ian Parker at ian.parker@cms-cmck.com or Ondřej Rob at ondrej.rob@cms-cmck.com or by telephone on 00 420 2 21098888.

Footnotes

Footnote 1 During the EU Summit in Gothenburg, the Czech Republic, together with other candidate countries, signed the "Action plan eEurope+". This plan refers to and in a way copies the "eEurope" plan of the European Union which was signed at the EU summit in Lisbon last year. Candidate countries in this way wanted to demonstrate their awareness and adherence to the EU aim of building a new knowledge-based society that is able to adjust and face new technological and economic trends.