IT Bill likely this session

NEW DELHI, MAY 8. If everything goes according to plan, the Information Technology Bill 1999 will be passed in the few days that remain of the current session of Parliament. With the Government's plans of doing so during the last session having come unstuck, the feeling is that there should be no further delay, particularly since the bill concerns the rapidly changing world of information technology, a realm where one has often to run to stay at the same place.

All the same, India is not far behind in providing a legal framework for electronic intercourse in trade and commerce. Although a few countries in the Asia-Pacific such as Singapore and Malaysia already have in place legislation that governs e- commerce, India is well ahead of most of the countries in the region.

The present bill has multiple fathers. A committee set up under the Commerce Ministry a couple of years ago to study e- commerce facilitation resulted in the finalisation of the `Electronic Commerce Act'. A slightly later but parallel effort by the Department of Electronics resulted in a separate draft. With the Law Ministry also lending its inputs, the present bill is an unforeseen amalgam of apparently unconnected efforts in the same direction. The basic framework of the bill is of course derived from elsewhere - the model law on electronic commerce framed by the United Nations Commission of Trade Law in 1996.

The IT bill is directed at according legal recognition of electronic documents, laying down procedures for affixing and authenticating digital signatures and evolving a system for dispute resolution and punishment of cyber crimes. In doing so, it proposes amendments in a few existing Acts (principally, the Indian Evidence Act and the Indian Penal Code) since any new legal framework after the IT Bill has been ratified will not necessarily be predicated on such things as paper records, original documents, physical cash or one-on-one meetings.

The passing of the bill will change little overnight. This is partly because in some sectors, for example the stock exchange, the electronic mode of trading is already in place. In others such as banking, the lack of interconnectivity is and will continue to be a major hurdle to the flow of inter-bank electronic transactions.

Arguably, the lack of infrastructure is a greater impediment to the growth of e-commerce than the lack of a legal framework to regulate it. In most countries, after all, the proliferation of electronic transactions has preceded the constitution of a legal backbone upon which such transactions finally rest.

Currently, connectivity suffers on multiple counts: it is unavailable, it is slow and it is expensive. It is unlikely that the Internet infrastructure will be strengthened and expanded unless there are radical changes in the telecom policy. While a sub-committee under a group, headed by the Finance Minister, is examining this very issue and proposals such as Sankhya Vahini are aired, any solution will finally involve a massive investment fix.

Much will also depend on the rules framed after the IT Act is ratified. For instance, the Act envisages a Controller of Certification Authority, a body which will overlook all aspects - including the issuance - of digital certification. Whether a provision like this will end up as a window for the Government and the bureaucracy to interfere in an area which is best left largely alone is a concern that has been already voiced.

As for dispute resolution, one of the critical components of legislation of this kind, the IT bill envisages a two-tier structure outside the present judicial system. The first comprises adjudicating officers who are entitled to receive complaints and who enjoy some of the powers of an ordinary civil court. Appeals against the order of the adjudicating officers are to be referred to a Cyber Regulations Appellate Tribunal.

While the idea was obviously to introduce an independent and, hopefully, speedier mechanism for resolving disputes and tackling cyber crime, further appeals are to be referred to a High Court. Thus, the existing judicial system is very much part of the cyber dispute resolution process.

With all political parties agreeing on the need for such legislation, the IT bill is unlikely to be the subject of a heated debate. While the bill has been examined from varying perspectives, one area which has generated very little debate is the question of privacy. In the West, the possibility of digital signatures being used to reveal real world identity is one of the questions that is causing concern about privacy in the electronic age.