AT A BOOK fair last May, patrons were able to order from an online catalogue. The government hopes ebusiness will take off next year.
Although parliament approved a law on e-signatures in March, the cabinet had to wait until late September to appropriate Sk55 million ($1.3 million) for its implementation, a task officials say will be difficult, but one they are ready for.
"I can now say that all the conditions for the implementation of e-signatures will be created by the end of this year," said Juraj Puchý, head of the National Security Office (NBÚ), the agency that oversees the system's safety.
"Currently, e-signatures cannot be used by anyone," he added.
E-signatures, small attachments to electronic documents that verify the identity of the sender, are a key step towards creating functional electronic government and commerce systems, experts say.
While forms of the technology have been in use for some time in banks and other institutions, the new law and its implementation will mean that email and other agreements sent digitally will carry the same legal weight as signed documents, facilitating a wide range of electronic civic and consumer services.
"The law is the result of significant compromises and a long fight, and we can be glad that it has finally been fully funded," said Michal Sasinek, one of the initiators of the e-signature project at the NBÚ.
Among those welcoming the funding for the implementation of e-signatures is the Slovak Association for Electronic Commerce (SAEC), which first initiated the law's formation in 1998.
"The e-signature, its legislative layout and implementation in Slovakia will benefit the whole Slovak economy. The use of e-signatures is bound to cut the cost of certain administrative and business activities carried out by the state and the private sector," said SAEC executive director Marián Krško.
"E-signatures are also very important in the area of international cooperation," he added.
Experts agree that the state bureaucracy could enjoy significant savings by using electronic signatures, particularly in documents relating to customs and tax offices, the health care system and social and health insurance.
"For the government, the application of e-signatures brings both cost savings and faster and more comfortable contact between the state and its citizens," said Krško.
Sasinek recalled the long struggle required to reach the point where implementation of the technology is in sight.
"I remember that the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs calculated in 1992 that the transition to electronic forms of social benefits payments would save Sk800 million ($18.2 million) per year on postal services alone," said Sasinek.
Although the first initiative on e-signatures was put forward in 1998, a number of competing proposals and technologies had to be addressed before it could progress.
Besides the plan put forward by the SAEC to the Economy Ministry, Slovakia's Chamber of Notaries, the Government Office and the Slovak IT Society all had their own ideas about how the law on e-signatures should look.
While the final law was based mostly on the IT Society's model, Sasinek said that all parties had cooperated and were satisfied with the end result.
The SAEC believes that the implementation of the new law will deliver healthy profits to companies certifying e-signatures.
"Operating in the area of certification is very attractive from the business point of view. Even though payment amounts [for certification services] have not been stated yet, companies offering those services will have to be paid by their users.
"For the group of institutions that become such authorities, it will be very lucrative," said Krško.
However, the transition to electronic forms of commerce and government will take more time and will require significant investment, say other backers of the law.
Although the system should be in effect by the end of the year, continued sluggishness in the global IT sector, combined with a limited e-commerce market in Slovakia, may dissuade companies from making the heavy technological investments that verifying e-signatures would require.
Also, while experts estimate that the Slovak market could eventually support up to five certification companies, none have yet been accredited to provide that service.
"As far as I know, [certification] companies cannot be profitable for quite a few years. They will need to invest millions, and the certificate will probably cost no more than a few thousand crowns," said Andrea Moravčíková from the law faculty of Commenius University and co-author of the law.
However, "some companies are prepared for it, and they will try to be accredited to provide certification," Moravčíková added.
While glad the project is now set for completion, NBÚ officials think more time will be needed before its effects are seen.
"The first steps [towards the widespread use of e-signatures] had to be taken by the state: preparing legislation and creating the right conditions. The state has done all this, and now we will have to wait and see how big the demand will be," said Puchý.
7. Oct 2002 at 0:00 | Miroslav Karpaty