The United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law on Electronic Commerce was promulgated in 1996 (and amended in 1998) to assist countries in the framing of legislation which would enable and facilitate electronic commerce and electronic government. Surprisingly, it makes no reference to the Internet.
This model law
- establishes rules and norms that validate and recognize contracts formed through electronic means,
- sets rules for forming contracts and governing electronic contract performance,
- defines the characteristics of valid electronic writing and of an original document,
- provides for the acceptability of electronic signatures for legal and commercial purposes, and
- supports the admission of computer evidence in courts and arbitration proceedings.
The Model Law adopts a limited framework approach. It is not intended to be a comprehensive, code-like articulation of the rules for electronic transactions, nor is it intended to govern every aspect of electronic contracting. Instead, it is intended to enable and facilitate electronic commerce by providing national legislators with a set of internationally acceptable rules aimed at removing legal obstacles and increasing legal predictability for electronic commerce. In particular, it was intended to overcome obstacles arising from statutory provisions that may not be varied contractually by providing equal treatment to paper-based and electronic information. Such equal treatment is essential for enabling the use of paperless communication, thus fostering efficiency in international trade.
The underlying analytical approach of the Model Law is the "functional equivalence" approach. This approach evaluates the underlying purposes and functions of traditional paper-based legal requirements and assesses to what extent electronic transactions can meet these purposes and functions. Where electronic transactions can satisfy the purposes and functions, the Model Law requires that they be given equal status. In effect, it puts electronic communications on par with traditional paper-based modes of communication.
Therefore, rather than rewriting the law, the Model Law seeks to extend the scope of standard national legal definitions of "writings", "signatures" and "originals" to encompass their electronic counterparts. It provides that information is not to be denied legal effect merely because it is in electronic form or is signed electronically. It also deals with transmission and receipt of messages and contracts for the carriage of goods. It does not address jurisdictional or conflict of laws issues.