A bill which plans to give electronic documents the same legal weight as paper documents was moved to second reading in parliament September 7, as Slovakia's information technology (IT) sector took another step closer to practices in the European Union.
The electronic signatures bill, as the draft is known, would allow tax returns to be filled out and submitted over the internet, using personal codes known as 'e-signatures' to verify the validity of each electronic document. It would also give business contracts 'signed' over the internet by distant suppliers and consumers equal status to traditional printed contracts. In effect, it would save people time and increase business efficiency, as well as increase internet use among citizens.
The bill is scheduled for a final vote in parliament this November, and should take effect in January 2002. An EU convention required each of the Union's member states to have 'e-signatures' laws in place by June 2001, although not all have complied.
However, IT sector professionals said that merely passing the law would not be enough to increase internet use and the maturity of the sector in Slovakia. For that to happen, they said, the government had to prepare an 'IT-positive' environment by itself becoming a force for change.
"The government has to create a climate supporting IT development by promoting wider internet use," said Július Lintner, co-author of the bill and project manager for the Ditec IT consulting firm. "It has to take advantage of electronic signatures itself and offer on-line services using signatures as a communication tool with people and business entities. At this point, these strategic issues which are so vital for the sector's development haven't yet been addressed."
Government officials admitted that they could have done more to promote internet services at state offices, but explained they had been distracted by higher-priority matters such as the overall state of the economy.
Lucia Mušková, head of the information systems department at the Government Office, noted that the government was due to approve a strategy for the development of information technology in Slovakia this November. The strategy document, she said, would include an outline of how the state bureaucracy was to be transformed from paper-based work to electronic operations with the use of electronic signatures.
"We have fallen behind other countries in IT, although this year the government said development of the sector was one of its priorities. So far, however, we have had trouble putting this support into action because there is no central institution in charge of IT sector strategies, of putting our policies into effect or of focusing on the IT environment."
The European Union began pressing Slovakia to be more active in developing its IT sector after the country bound itself to the 'E-Europe' programme this past summer. The programme, which is designed for countries asking for membership in the EU, stresses increasing both access to the internet as well as the amount of daily business carried out by electronic means - the pillars of the 'information society' concept the EU wants its members to adopt.
The Slovak government has been anxious to meet the EU's demands in the IT field, Mušková explained. "That [meeting EU requests] is one reason why the role of the state administration in putting electronic signatures into practice is so key," she said.
Another reason that the performance of the state sector is so important is the huge impact a wholesale bureaucratic change would have on society.
Although experts predicted that banks and private companies would be the first to take advantage of the law, with the corporate sector operating fully on-line within five years, real change would not occur until individual citizens began using electronic signatures, they said, especially in communication with civil service offices.
Mušková explained that the government meant to begin by offering basic state services such as filing value added tax (VAT) statements online within two to three years. "Cabinet ministers have said they are willing to support this financially," she said. "We eventually want to have all our services online, allowing people to use electronic signatures in communication with us."
While Lintner reckoned it would actually take about a decade before citizens regularly communicated with the state administration over the internet, largely because of the huge investments required, he and other IT experts said the added benefits of putting bureaucrats online made the financial outlay worthwhile.
"One of the biggest positives brought by electronic signatures is that they can cut corruption in the state sector, because people will have less contact with state officials," said Karol Puzser, an analyst with IT firm Core 4. "Everything would also run faster, and the government would in fact save money because electronic signatures would make it less expensive to offer their services.
"Just look at the example of Singapore, where the government, thanks to electronic signatures, in one year saved exactly what it had invested into their launch."