An international coalition that includes American Express Co., First Data Corp., and MetLife has launched a campaign for what it calls consistent and equitable digital signature laws.

The Electronic Commerce Forum, which began as an informal grouping in March 1996, aired its views Wednesday at a congressional hearing in Washington along with speakers from Visa International, Citicorp, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Zions First National Bank of Salt Lake City. Paul Dorey, head of global operational risk management at Barclays Bank of London, made the forum's call for "a favorable regulatory framework that builds trust and confidence" in on-line commerce through all channels.

Though the forum supports federal regulation of digital signatures, which are electronic means of authenticating parties to a transaction, it holds that the private sector should play a prominent role in drafting the laws. Germany is the only country in Europe that has put digital signature into law, but countries actively considering doing so include England, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

"Consistency of legislation with regard to digital signatures is important for legal certainty," Mr. Dorey said in an interview. "If it differs among states or around the world, that leads to confusion."

Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), who presided over the hearing Wednesday of his House subcommittee on domestic and international monetary policy, is one of many Washington officials who has warned against premature regulation of electronic money and commerce.

Those views encouraged the formation of the Electronic Commerce Forum, whose other paid-up members include America Online Inc., Beneficial Bank PLC, Digicash Inc., Ford Motor Credit Corp., Gemplus Group, KeyCorp, and the New York Institute of Technology.

The forum was founded by attorneys Mary Clare Fitzgerald and Paul Seader of the New York-based firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

They have been holding monthly steering committee meetings with about 40 participants from member companies.

By holding its meetings in Washington, the group stays close to regulators who have expressed a desire to keep abreast of electronic commerce developments.

The forum is one of a crowded field of electronic commerce interest groups, ranging from the multi-industry CommerceNet to the banking-focused Financial Services Technology Consortium and Banking Industry Technology Secretariat.

"There is a great deal of interest right now in those things that make electronic commerce possible over open networks," said Marlene Nicholson, director of government relations at Barclays. She said the "ECF" hopes to represent a "broader base ... not just people who strictly provide services or hardware or software."

One of the forum's basic positions is that legislation governing electronic commerce should not be specific about technologies and should be as broad as possible, so as to avoid being rendered moot by advances in the marketplace.

Mr. Dorey said electronic commerce would progress best under self- regulation.

"We're talking about a group of organizations getting together and defining dynamically, as the medium develops, what the appropriate standards are," he said.

Mr. Dorey said he was not proposing that the Electronic Commerce Forum be designated as the writer of regulatory guidelines. The forum has suggested a system modeled after the self-regulatory bodies in the securities industry.

"What government can do is put in place the overarching regulatory framework," he said. "The level of certainty and trust should be communicated up front rather than implied and hidden in a nebulous electronic environment."

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