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Making electronic communication legal - or at least workable.

The paperless office? Let's see if we can settle for the signature-less office.

This story begins several centuries ago when the barristers of England argued that paper was of insufficient quality to be considered archival. Only parchment -- that is, dried animal skin -- made a document legal.

Now consider the situation several decades ago, after lawyers agreed to the paper alternative. Despite the proliferation of the typewriter, a handwritten document was proof of authenticity. After all, it was just too easy to lift a staple and switch the inner pages of a contract.

Of course, the typewriter and then the word processor became essential office equipment, so eventually a simple autograph put the stamp of approval on that piece of paper.

But wait. Progress is leading us into new controversies. A signed fax isn't really a signature; it's a copy of a signature. And as for electronic mail, well, you've just got to trust it to be official without any autograph.

Is this any way to do business? In his book, "The Law of Electronic Commerce," attorney Benjamin Wright points out that "old habits and rusty thinking drive lawyers ... to jet from city to city for the sole purpose of quickly securing original autographs on paper." Laughable? Yet, how many times lately have you held up a project or spent half a day chasing someone down just to get a signature of approval?

For electronic communication to work in our favor, we need to rethink our use, control and recording of it. "Paper supports a host of controls and audit trails for regulating and tracing transaction initiation, processing and accounting. Autographs can indicate approval ... Office procedures for individually reading and physically routing documents can ensure they are understood and acted upon. Electronic transaction systems are capable of supporting similar, and often better, controls and audit trails," Wright writes.

If you work in the corporate world, standards and security may be in place. It's another story if you are in a small organization or on your own.

Jon Hoornstra has developed a system that works for him. As Jon Hoornstra Consulting, he offers public and government relations consulting from California's Silicon Valley.

"When negotiating terms of agreement via E-mail, I have always retained all exchanges so that a complete history is present to reflect the discussion that led to the final terms." he says. "All the draft correspondence, including the last exchange, is copied to disk once the final agreement is settled. I keep the final agreement on hard disk and make one print copy. When the contract is fulfilled, I move the hard disk copy onto its own disk, check to make sure it copied correctly, and file it with the one copy printed earlier. It sits inside a 4-x-7 inch envelope immediately in front of the hard copy. I then erase the hard disk copy." (Via E-mail, of course.)

His software allows him to protect designated files, such as work agreements, to be "read only" files that can't be altered.

Hoornstra points out that his system works for him because his clients are comfortable with computer exchanges. On the other hand, "If you're working out a contract with someone whose office computer is in the hands of secretarial staff, it'll be a hard copy relationship," he said.

The project itself might determine whether electronic communication is sufficient. "If we're talking about a really BIG contract, that would be another matter. For big money, I'll make a trip for eye-to-eye, hard copy, indelible ink and all that!"

If you've been around computers long enough, though, you know that the storage medium changes. If you had saved important business information all these years on punched cards, you might as well fold, spindle and mutilate them; you'd never find an easy way to retrieve the data. Eight-inch floppies have given way to 3.5-inch disks. And of course, one 3.5-inch disk drive won't read just any disk that slides in.

Bill Lutholtz, ABC, publications editor and speechwriter for Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and active freelance writer, still argues for words on paper when it really matters. "A book's a book. Printed. Self-contained. Needs no playback instrument. And even if you don't know the language you can still find a way to get it translated comparatively easily."

Mike Bayer has another idea of when paper really matters. His firm, Mike Bayer Public Relations of Laguna Hills, Calif., specializes in law firm PR, and he keeps up with legal issues like this: "I have two clients who I have neither met nor exchanged hard copy contracts with. One I met on CompuServe, the other I met through a referral, and we do business via MCI Mail." But, he points out, "I do have their hard copy checks!" Signed, of course.

Sheri Rosen, ABC, owns ConsultRosen Enterprises, 1468 Nelson St., Mandeville, La., 70448. The firm specializes in corporate publications and computer applications for public relations.
COPYRIGHT 1993 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Computer Sense; effective use of electronic communication
Author:Rosen, Sheri
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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