WASHINGTON - The House on Monday voted by a wide margin to approve a bill to give agreements signed electronically the same legal force as paper contracts.

The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act was approved 426-4 and is expected to go to the Senate for a vote on Thursday. Approval there would send the bill to President Clinton, who has indicated that he will sign it into law.

The bill does not endorse a specific technology that must be used for digital signatures, leaving it up to the parties involved in a contract to settle on a method both view as safe and reliable.

It would allow financial services firms to send disclosures and statements to customers electronically, if the customer both agrees to receive them that way and demonstrates the ability to do so.

"It's been a long struggle, but it is a very fine bill," said Jeremiah S. Buckley, counsel to the Electronic Financial Services Council. "I think that this bill is bigger than Gramm-Leach-Bliley in its long-term impact on the way financial services are delivered in America. It will change the nature of the products and the nature of the providers over time."

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