Fifteen years legal, Australian e-signature use still lags world

Australian businesses are lagging the world when it comes to adopting electronic signatures but the practice is growing faster here than anywhere else in the world, a survey of business e-signature adoption has found.

The use of e-signatures – images of signatures, other marks or even typed entries added to electronic documents to serve the same function as signatures on paper – was legalised in section 10 of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999. However, 15 years later – and despite a wealth of options for using e-signatures – a survey by Adobe Systems found that only around 2 percent of Australian businesses are currently using them.

By contrast, 11 percent of US and 3.5 percent of UK businesses are using the technology, which provides a less-difficult method of authentication than digital signatures.

However, said Adobe's global lead for EchoSign Jon Perera, adoption within Australian companies is growing by 48 percent per month and 76 percent of the survey respondents said the Australian government needs to do more to promote use of e-signatures within the country.

“The government is at a moment of change where it is driving efficiencies, driving down costs, and improving efficiency as well as citizen electronic services,” Perera told CSO Australia. “We're at a tipping point in Australia, driven by citizen demand for having more modern ways of interacting with the government.”

Broader adoption of e-signatures in modern productivity tools – Adobe's EchoSign naturally builds on the ubiquitous PDF format that company pioneered, while Microsoft recently added e-signature support to its Office 365 online productivity suite. And Apple's Preview application, built into every Mac, includes features for capturing, managing and adding e-signatures to any PDF or image.

Integrating e-signature support into everyday applications will be crucial to giving the process the kind of transparency and ease of use that will help Australian businesses and consumers really pick up the use of electronic signatures, Perera said.

“This technology was harder to use in the past, but we're at a turning point,” he explained. “It's become like an iPad: because it is so intuitive and easy to use, there is no training required.”

Education, however, remains an important part of the push for e-signature adoption since the natural inclination of many users is still to question whether the signatures are legal or, when they have been used, whether they worked as expected.

“Segments of the population have the lingering question in their head that, once they do any technological interaction with the government, 'did that just work?'” explained Perera, who has been meeting with Canberra government technologists to discuss ways of promoting use of e-signatures.

“I've had officials telling me this is a challenge, because some people are concerned and call up the government to say 'I submitted this thing online and will it work?'” he said. “The agencies do it to lower costs, but ironically they incur costs by having two interactions instead of one.”

With 76 percent of survey respondents believing the government should do more to encourage e-signature usage, Adobe has laid out a multi-point plan to do just that. Among its recommendations include the adoption of e-signatures across Commonwealth government departments and agencies; clarifying the legal status of e-signatures; ensuring e-signatures are recognised under federal and state Evidence Acts; and creating incentives to encourage business adoption of e-signature technology.

The recommendations also include promoting the environmental benefits of the technology through reductions in paper usage; according to the survey, 78 percent of respondents said they try to keep contracts digital to help the environment.

Companies adopting e-signatures at large scale include Aetna, Time Warner Cable, British Telecom, Facebook, and Google. Sales, HR, legal and procurement departments are currently the most enthusiastic adopters of the technology.

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

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