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Bill seeks online federal forms

A new bill would compel federal agencies to make their forms available online, and would allow forms to be filed electronically using digital signatures.

Newly introduced legislation by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) would compel all government agencies to make their forms available online, but also would allow constituents to file those forms electronically, using electronic signatures.

The Electronic Commerce Enhancement Act would give the Office of Management and Budget and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration 12 months to establish guidelines for all government agencies to put their forms online and accept electronic filing, signatures, and payment, and two additional years to finish the process.

Although some agencies already make their forms available on the Internet, few allow their forms to be filed online. Instead, citizens must print the forms themselves, fill them out by hand, and send them via snail mail to their congressional representatives. Most agencies only accept handwritten signatures to verify the authenticity of documents.

According to Eshoo, digital signatures, while not standardized yet, offer a much higher level of security than handwritten signatures because of the high-powered encryption technology that is used. A spokesman from Eshoo's office was quick to point out that the proposed legislation should not be seen as an attempt to legislate a standard for the different technologies for digital signatures.

"This is not an attempt to set a federal standard," said Lewis Roth, a spokesman from Eshoo's office. Instead, he said, the legislation calls for the private sector to create the software and certificates needed to verify that someone who files a government form electronically is who they say they are.

This legislation is the latest move by the federal government to support commerce over the Internet. Most legislators have already agreed that overtaxing the burgeoning electronic marketplace would have a chilling effect on electronic commerce, and legislation calling for a moratorium on Net taxes is making its way through Congress. It is a logical next step to encourage electronic payments and filing of forms to federal agencies.

Hewlett-Packard has already estimated that it could save $1 million per year using digital signatures to file its W-4 forms alone.

According to Roth, the proposed legislation should be welcomed by all citizens and businesses, not just Eshoo's Silicon Valley constituents.

"There would clearly be a lot of interest, not only among individuals, but also among companies to get government forms online, get the payments online, and spare themselves the hassles of filing," said Roth.