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S.L. firm helps bill turn to law

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WASHINGTON — With the help of a Salt Lake company, President Clinton used his electronic signature Friday to sign into law a bill allowing all Americans to bind contracts via the Internet.

But he first had to sign it with a pen, because the new law affecting other legal contracts doesn't change requirements that presidents must sign bills the old-fashioned way — by hand.

"But he signed it electronically, too, to demonstrate how it works and to show support," said Scott Lowry, president and chief executive officer of Digital Signature Trust, a subsidiary of Zions Bancorp.

Digital Signature Trust is the only company yet certified by federal procurement officers to act as a repository for data to verify electronic signatures for federal officials. So it holds a numeric "key" that verifies Clinton's electronic signature.

When a document with a digital signature is encrypted and sent, the receiving party can find the sender's public signature "key" in such a repository to decipher and verify the signature. If the document is tampered with en route, the signature mutates.

Clinton signed the bill electronically Friday in Philadelphia's Congress Hall, a building adjacent to Independence Hall where Congress met in its early years.

"Now let's see if this works," Clinton told the crowd, which included Lowry, as he inserted a card encoded with his signature. He also entered the code name "Buddy," his dog's name.

The presidential signature then popped up on a screen.

"Well, it worked," Clinton said. "All of you young people will someday look back on this day and marvel that it was such a big deal."

Lowry said the signing really is a big deal. "This is a monumental event. We will look back in 10 or 15 years at it, and see that it fundamentally changed the way business was conducted on the Internet."

Lowry said it will allow such things as buying mortgages, car loans and student loans online. It will also make any purchase online as secure and legally binding as if conducted and signed-for in person.

Utah first passed a digital signature act in 1995, so some businesses there already have a head start on activities now allowed nationwide through the new federal law.

The new bill passed through both houses of Congress by vast margins, but required months of negotiation over safeguards for consumers.

It still requires legal notices that potentially affect health and safety to be issued by traditional means. Those exemptions include cancellation of insurance, shut-off of utilities, court documents, eviction notices and product recalls.

Still, Lowry said, "This will have a profound impact on the way America does business. It could lead to truly a paperless society" that could save businesses big money in storage costs for traditional contracts.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com