Digital identities

Broadly speaking, digital signatures are linked to the authentication of individuals on the Internet, which affects many aspects, including jurisdiction, cybercrime, and e-commerce. The use of digital signatures should contribute to building trust on the Internet.

Digital authentication in general is often considered to be part of the e-commerce framework, as it is aimed at facilitating e-commerce transactions through the conclusion of e-contracts. For example, is an agreement valid and binding if it is completed via e-mail or through a website? In many countries, the law requires that contracts must be ‘in writing’ or ‘signed’. What does this mean in terms of the Internet? Faced with these dilemmas and pressured to establish an e-commerce-enabling environment, many governments have started adopting legislation on digital signatures.


When it comes to digital signatures, the main challenge is that governments are not regulating an existing problem, such as cybercrime or copyright infringement, but creating a new regulatory environment in which they have no practical experience. This has resulted in a variety of solutions and a general vagueness in the provisions on digital signatures. Three major approaches to the regulation of digital signatures have emerged.

The first is a minimalist approach, specifying that electronic signatures cannot be denied because they are in electronic form. This approach specifies a very broad use of digital signatures and has been adopted in common law countries: the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

The second approach is maximalist, specifying a framework and procedures for digital signatures, including cryptography and the use of public key identifiers. This approach usually specifies the establishment of dedicated certificate authorities, which can certify future users of digital signatures. This approach has prevailed in the laws of European countries, such as Germany and Italy.

The third approach, adopted within the EU Electronic Signatures Directive (adopted in 1999), combines these two approaches. It has a minimalist provision for the recognition of signatures supplied via an electronic medium. The maximalist approach is also recognised through granting that ‘advanced electronic signatures’ will have stronger legal effect in the legal system (e.g. easier to prove these signatures in court cases). The EU Directive on digital signatures was one of the responses at multilateral level. While it has been adopted in all EU member states, a difference in the legal status of digital signatures still remains, and this has been seen as a barrier to the cross-border use and interoperability of digital signatures.  This barrier is to be overcome with the entry into force, starting July 2016, of a Regulation on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market, which keeps the approach of the 1999 Directive, while requiring member states to recognise qualified electronic signatures based on qualified certificated issues in any of the other EU member.

At global level, in 2001, UNCITRAL adopted the Model Law on Electronic Signatures, which grants the same status to digital signatures as to handwritten ones, providing some technical requirements are met. This model law served as inspiration for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), which integrated this approach into its more wide Model Law on Electronic Transactions, adopted in 2010.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) issued a General Usage in International Digitally Ensured Commerce (GUIDEC), which provides a survey of the best practices, regulations, and certification issues.

Public key infrastructure (PKI) initiatives are directly related to digital signatures. Two main organisations involved with PKI standardisation are the ITU and the IETF.

Privacy and digital signatures

Digital signatures are part of a broader consideration of the relationship between privacy and authentication on the Internet. Digital signatures are just one of the important techniques used to identify individuals on the Internet. For instance, in some countries where digital signature legislation or standards and procedures have not yet been set up, SMS authentication via mobile phones is used by banks for approving customers’ online transactions.

The need for detailed implementation standards

Although many developed countries have adopted broad digital signature legislation, it often lacks detailed implementation standards and procedures. Given the novelty of the issues involved, many countries are waiting to see in which direction concrete standards will develop. Standardisation initiatives occur at various levels, including international organisations (the ITU), regional bodies (European Committee for Standardization – CEN), and professional associations (the IETF).

The risk of incompatibility

The variety of approaches and standards in the field of digital signatures could lead to incompatibility between different national systems. Patchwork solutions could restrict the development of e-commerce at a global level. The necessary harmonisation should be provided through regional and global organisations.

Our Experts

Ms Grace Mutung'u

Associate at the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet)

Ms Grace Mutung’u researches ICT policy in Kenya and Africa, specialising in digital rights, governance, and development. She is an associate at the Kenya ICT Action Network where she carries out ICT policy research and advocacy. Grace is an alumna of DiploFoundation’s Internet governance capacity building courses and holds a Master’s of