Today, thanks to the health emergency that we are currently experiencing, remote working has become a necessity for many of us, an option which, in most cases, is a forced choice. Working from home has meant having to use alternative ways of interacting with both clients and colleagues.
As users or clients, we have had to adapt to making purchases online, to managing procedures or paperwork without going to a physical location, and instead doing all the necessary tasks remotely. So, even signing contracts, of various types, is an action that we have increasingly learned to do online and from the comfort of our homes.
In short, many new habits have been imposed on us and because of this, sometimes we look upon these new habits with distrust: Will this contract really be valid? What is it, how does this electronic signature work? Would a scan of the classic handwritten signature be better? We anticipate that the answer would be “no.”
And yet, it’s worth taking these new forced habits as an opportunity to review the work processes we’re used to, to optimize them and make them faster, more efficient, and more secure. Therefore, when it comes to using electronic signatures for signing contracts remotely, we have to understand how to integrate and properly use them so that we are certain of the legal efficacy of such documents.
As a result of the pandemic, many companies are digitally reviewing their operational processes and relationships with the outside world (customers, suppliers, stakeholders) and with the inside world (approval processes, HR processes, etc.). In doing so, they are beginning to understand the real opportunities for efficiency gains through the use of digital validation tools such as electronic signatures, electronic time stamps, digital identities, and the preservation of IT documents.
The Dell Technologies Digital Transformation Index has estimated that more than 80% of Italian companies are moving quickly to redesign new solutions and innovative business models, and that they are accelerating the dematerialization of document processes.
In this increasingly widespread scenario of digital document management and integrated processes and data, the adoption of electronic signature solutions is central and strategic.
The electronic signature… let’s talk about it
From a regulatory point of view, to date, the electronic signature is mainly defined and regulated by three regulatory texts:
- The eIDAS Regulation, issued in 2014, which regulates at the European level and establishes a set of common requirements throughout the Union
- The CAD, Digital Administration Code (Codice dell’Amministrazione Digitale), contained in Legislative Decree 82/2005, which provides some basic definitions and incorporates the innovations made by the eIDAS Regulation
- The Decree of the Prime Ministry DPCM 22 February 2013, which defines the technical rules for the generation, affixing, and verification of advanced, qualified, and digital electronic signatures
The eIDAS regulation provides a general definition of the simple electronic signature, identified as a set of “data in electronic form, attached or connected by logical association to other electronic data and used by the signer to sign documents.” As clarified by the CAD, such a signature is valid in court, in case of litigation. In some cases, depending on the nature of the documents and a risk analysis, a simple electronic signature solution or even a simpler “click” of acceptance may be sufficient.
We must never forget that the principle of non-discrimination or neutrality of the electronic form applies, according to which an electronic signature cannot be denied legal effects and admissibility as evidence in legal proceedings solely because of its electronic form or because it does not meet the requirements for qualified electronic signatures.
However, in cases where we want or need to have a higher degree of security in order to perfect our documents and contracts in the best possible way, we have to turn to the so-called “strong” signature solutions, which are able to protect us better before the law.
The highest degree of guarantee from the point of view of legal and evidentiary effectiveness is offered by the qualified electronic signature which, in Italy, refers to the digital signature. This term, often used to generically indicate electronic signatures, actually refers to a very specific and technologically defined signature solution, based on the use of a qualified certificate and cryptographic keys generated by a special device. The digital signature is essential when signing important documents such as those for the purchase and sale of real estate. The use of a digital signature, therefore, presupposes that the signatory owns and knows how to use and protect their signature using a dedicated device.
For this reason, advanced electronic signatures are often the best solution for clients and users to employ when closing contracts remotely. This type of signature is able to satisfy a wide range of requirements that provide the signed document the same validity of the document signed with a handwritten signature, through a more streamlined and easy to use solution than the qualified or digital signature. Moreover, it can be realized through multiple different technology solutions, as long as they are able to guarantee the minimum requirements of advanced electronic signatures.
The requirements of an advanced electronic signature
The Dpcm of 22 February 2013, which takes up much of the eIDAS Regulation, defines the requirements that must characterize an advanced electronic signature. In summary, an advanced electronic signature must:
- Allow the signer to be identified in a certain way and uniquely link the signature to the signer
- Guarantee exclusive control of the signature generation system by the signatory
- Allow verification that the document, once signed, has not been tampered with or modified; furthermore, the document must not contain elements that induce improper modification of its content (such as macro-instructions)
- Allow the signatory to examine the document before signing it
- Allow the identification of the subject providing the electronic signature solution
- Ensure that the signature and the signed document are uniquely linked
With these characteristics, advanced electronic signatures (FEA – Firma elettronica avanzata) are suitable for use in signing and concluding a wide range of contracts: for example, the electricity contract, for a bank account, or for the rental of a car. In other terms, in each of these cases, this is where the signer and the person providing the signature solution (i.e. the company) agree to use this solution. One of the most well-known types of advanced electronic signature is the graphometric signature, which we now use more and more at the bank counter, at the post office, or in front-end scenarios. However, the FEA solution that has been gaining popularity in recent years and guarantees remote and mobile signing is a solution based on the use of one time passwords (OTP) and that offers an adequate guarantee of robustness and information transparency.
In addition, advanced electronic signatures require the identification of the signer and his or her initial acceptance of the FEA solution, which can be given with the same FEA solution on first use.
The benefits of remote e-signatures
So, as we have seen, there are many ways and many solutions to sign contracts remotely. Simple, advanced, and digital e-signatures offer different protections and, of course, can have different costs. Balancing the need to protect the effectiveness of a particular document with the associated costs is essential in choosing the most suitable signature solution for the purpose on a case-by-case basis. But, aside from these case-by-case evaluations, it is certain that integrating the right processes for signing contracts remotely can offer businesses significant benefits.
First and foremost, speed. Concluding and signing contracts remotely can reduce the steps required, optimizing processes and saving time for contractors. In addition, adopting these signature solutions is extremely convenient. In fact, customers and users can sign documents anywhere and with any mobile device. In practice, in most cases all you need is your smartphone and an internet connection. This is why it can be strategic to offer your customers an e-signature option with the features described above. In increasingly hectic times, we are always inclined to choose the most convenient and quickest solution, the one that seems less complicated to us.
However, managing contracts remotely with the help of electronic signatures is not only convenient and beneficial for clients, but also for businesses. Being able to have contracts and documents online, digitally, is much easier and more sustainable than having to manage, print, move, and store stacks upon stacks of paper files. Managing contracts online allows businesses to easily keep track of all their paperwork, to monitor and track its status effectively, all with significant savings in time and resources.
In addition, as we have seen above, electronic signatures are secure, since they can give legal validity to documents and contracts, even in case of litigation. As electronic signatures are inextricably linked to the document, they can protect it from tampering and unlawful alteration, safeguarding the integrity and authenticity of the content.
That’s why, as we anticipated in the beginning, an electronic signature is much better than a scanned handwritten signature, even though it may not seem so at first glance. Printing a contract, signing it, scanning it, and sending it back is neither efficient nor secure. First of all, there are several steps to be taken and they are time-consuming. In addition, a scanned signature will never be able to identify the signatory with certainty, nor will it be able to conclusively preserve the signed document from undue modification.
Being able to properly manage remote contracts and electronic signatures, therefore, can really make the difference when building lean and efficient work processes and for obtaining solid and fully effective contracts in front of the law, protecting both companies and customers in the process.
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