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U.S., Ireland in e-commerce pact

President Bill Clinton and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern become the first heads of state to digitally sign an international accord.

DUBLIN, Ireland--President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern today became the first heads of government to electronically sign an international accord.

The two made digital history here by applying digital signatures to a joint communique promoting the development of electronic commerce.

The communique outlines principles that the two governments intend to underlie the development of e-commerce: recognition of the key role of industry, acceptance of electronic signatures for legal and commercial use, keeping electronic transactions free from customs duties, and clear, consistent, and neutral taxes on e-commerce.

AP photo
Clinton, Ahern digitally sign e-commerce pact.

Welcoming the notion of virtual signatures, the president joked with the audience at the Gateway computer facility, saying, "Do you have any idea how much time I spend every day signing my name?

"Technology, if we handle it right, will be one of the great liberating and equalizing forces in all of human history," he added on a more serious note.

The Irish prime minister called the signing "a historic milestone in the development of global electronic commerce."

Both leaders were given personal smart cards containing unique codes and digital certificates by Irish security software providers Baltimore Technologies.

Each leader signed the accord by inserting his smart card in a special reader and then entering his private code, which applied the digital signatures to the communique.

Digital signatures for authenticating documents, along with strong encryption for security, are seen as key to the development of e-commerce. The technology authenticates the sender of an online document, and ensures a document is tamper-proof. Today's ceremony was aimed at boosting confidence in the technology.

The president also stressed the growing importance of Ireland as a center for electronic commerce, saying that "at the hub of this virtual commerce is Ireland, a natural gateway for the future...of such commerce between Europe and the United States."

Ireland, already the second-largest exporter of software in the world after the United States, is seen as e-commerce friendly. The Irish government has adopted an industry-friendly position on strong encryption, and is actively encouraging industry to develop a broadband infrastructure.