The Uniform Law Commissioners promulgated the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) in 1999. It is the first comprehensive effort to prepare state law for the electronic commerce era. Many states have already adopted legislation pertaining to such matters as digital signatures, but UETA represents the first national effort at providing some uniform rules to govern transactions in electronic commerce that should serve in every state. Although related to the Uniform Commercial Code, the rules of UETA are primarily for "electronic records and electronic signatures relating to a transaction" that is not subject to any article of the Uniform Commercial Code, except for Articles 2 and 2A. A "transaction" means an action or set of actions occurring between two or more persons relating to the conduct of business, commercial, or governmental affairs. Much is excluded in this definition, including required notices, disclosures or communications by courts and governmental agencies.
UETA applies only to transactions in which each party has agreed by some means to conduct them by electronically. Agreement is essential. Nobody is forced to conduct to electronic transactions. Parties to electronic transactions come under UETA, but they may also opt out. They may vary, waive or disclaim most of the provisions of UETA by agreement, even if it is agreed that business will be transacted by electronic means. The rules in UETA are almost all default rules that apply only in the event the terms of an agreement do not govern.
Electronic commerce means, of course, persons doing business with other persons with computers and telephone or television cable lines. The Internet is the great marketplace for these kinds of transactions; a marketplace developing almost daily in 1999 (and presumably into the foreseeable future). The outlines and boundaries for this marketplace are still unknown and developments are not predictable. It is not possible to predict with any certainty how new law should develop to serve that marketplace or any other electronic marketplace that might develop in the future.
However, a few things are known about the existing electronic marketplace and there are some assumptions about the law that governs transactions within it that can be made with reasonable certainty in 1999, and that will continue to be reasonably certain into the future. Electronic transactions are conducted by communicating digitized information from one person to another. That digitized information can be communicated and stored without the use of paper, and the basic language of electronic transactions is fully and inherently paperless. In fact, relying on paper for the memorialization of transactions and upon manual signatures for verifying them are most likely to impede electronic transactions, adding to their costs. And there is no benefit to any party to an electronic transaction, with very few exceptions, in requiring that they be memorialized on paper with signatures that are manual. The need to expand requirements in the law for writings and manual signatures so that electronic records and electronic signatures will satisfy those requirements, is the one thing that is reasonably certain with respect to electronic transactions.
UETA does not attempt to create a whole new system of legal rules for the electronic marketplace. The objective of UETA is to make sure that transactions in the electronic marketplace are as enforceable as transactions memorialized on paper and with manual signatures, but without changing any of the substantive rules of law that apply. This is a very limited objective—that an electronic record of a transaction is the equivalent of a paper record, and that an electronic signature will be given the same legal effect, whatever that might be, as a manual signature. The basic rules in UETA serve this single purpose.
The basic rules are in Section 7 of UETA. The most fundamental rule in Section 7 provides that a "record or signature may not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form." The second most fundamental rule says that "a contract may not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because an electronic record was used in its formation." The third most fundamental rule states that any law that requires a writing will be satisfied by an electronic record. And the fourth basic rule provides that any signature requirement in the law will be met if there is an electronic signature.
Almost all of the other rules in UETA serve the fundamental principles set out in Section 7, and tend to answer basic legal questions about the use of electronic records and signatures. Thus, Section 15 determines when information is legally sent or delivered in electronic form. It establishes when electronic delivery occurs—when an electronic record capable of retention by the recipient is legally sent and received. The traditional and statutory rules that govern mail delivery of the paper memorializing a transaction can’t be applied to electronic transactions. Electronic rules have to be devised., and UETA provides the rule.
Another rule that supports the general validity of electronic records and signatures in transactions is the rule on attribution in Section 9. Electronic transactions are mostly faceless transactions between strangers. UETA states that a signature is attributable to a person if it is an act of that person, and that act may be shown in any manner. If a security procedure is used, its efficacy in establishing the attribution may be shown. In the faceless environment of electronic transactions, the obvious difficulties of identification and attribution must be overcome. UETA, Section 9 gives guidance in that endeavor.
Much has been much written about digital signatures in electronic commerce. What is a digital signature? It is really a method of encryption that utilizes specific technology. In the faceless environment of the electronic marketplace and particularly the Internet, such technologies are highly useful.
It is not wholly certain what the legal impact of these technologies should be. For that reason UETA may not be characterized as a digital signature statute. It does facilitate the use of digital signatures and other security procedures in rules such as the one in Section 9 on attribution. Section 10 provides some rules on errors and changes in messages. It favors the party who conforms to the security procedure used in the specific transaction against the party who does not, in the event there is a dispute over the content of the message.
But nothing in UETA requires the use of a digital signature or any security procedure. It is technologically neutral. Persons can use the most up-to-date digital signature technology, or less sophisticated security procedures such as passwords or pin numbers. Whatever parties to transactions use for attribution or assuring message integrity may be offered in evidence if there is a dispute.
UETA is procedural, not substantive. It does not require anybody to use electronic transactions or to rely upon electronic records and signatures. It does not prohibit paper records and manual signatures. Basic rules of law, like the general and statutory law of contracts, continue to apply as they have always applied.
There are three provisions in UETA that need special attention, and that are not directly in support of the basic rules in Section 7. First, UETA excludes transactions subject to the Uniform Commercial Code, except for those under Articles 2 and 2A, the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act, laws governing estates and trusts, and any other specific laws that a state wants to exempt from the rules applied in UETA. Some writing and signature requirements in state law do not impact the enforceability of transactions, and have objectives that should not be affected by adoption of a statute like UETA. The limitation of UETA to agreed electronic transactions will eliminate any conflict with other writing requirements for the most part. However, there is some room for jurisdiction-specific tailoring of UETA permitted in each state, to assure no conflict. Exclusions should be carefully and conservatively selected. Most law relating to contracts and transactions between persons will serve the public better if electronic records and signatures are recognized.
Second, UETA provides for "transferable records" in Section 16. Notes under Article 3 and documents under Article 7 of the Uniform Commercial Code are "transferable records" when in electronic form. Notes and documents are negotiable instruments. The quality of negotiation relies upon the note or document as the single, unique token of the obligations and rights embodied in the note or document. Maintaining that quality as a unique token for electronic records is the subject of Section 16. A transferable record exists when there is a single authoritative copy of that record existing and unalterable in the "control" of a person. A person in "control" is a "holder" for the purposes of transferring or negotiating that record under the Uniform Commercial Code. Section 16 is essentially a supplement to the Uniform Commercial Code, until its relevant articles can be fully amended or revised to accommodate electronic instruments.
Third, UETA clearly validates contracts formed by electronic agents. Electronic agents are computer programs that are implemented by their principals to do business in electronic form. They operate automatically, without immediate human supervision, though they are certainly not autonomous agents. They are a kind of tool that parties use to communicate. Section 14 provides that a person may form a contract by using an electronic agent. That means that the principal, which is the person or entity which provides the program to do business, is bound by the contract that its agent makes.
When somebody buys something on the Internet, therefore, that person will be assured that the agreement is valid, even though the transaction is conducted automatically by a computer that solicits orders and payment information. Did anyone really think that every order on the Internet involves a direct communication with a human being?
Three sections of UETA deal with electronic records that state governmental agencies create and retain. Section 17 allows a state to designate one agency or officer as the authority on creation and retention of governmental records. Section 18 allows a state to designate which agency or officer regulates the communication of electronic records and use of electronic signatures between agencies and other persons. Section 19 allows a state to designate an agency or officer to set standards that promote consistency and interoperability between state agencies with respect to the use of electronic records and signatures. All three sections are optional sections, there for the state that needs them, but not mandatory for all states in order to implement uniformity. These are very important provisions, however, because they provide a state with some root law for organizing the electronic business of the state. They should be given very serious consideration in every state.
It is not possible to cover every aspect of UETA in a short summary. This summary highlights some important aspects. The adoption of these rules will be a boon to electronic commerce. They will not artificially skew any market or make any substantive law relating to contracts any different from that governing transactions memorialized on paper. Every state should adopt them as quickly as possible.