The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Shocking Truth About Digital Signatures and Internet Commerce

26 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2012

See all articles by Jane K. Winn

Jane K. Winn

University of Washington - School of Law

Date Written: January 1, 2001


This Article critiques a specific set of assumptions about a specific application of digital signature technology that was widely held in the 1990s: that contracts will be formed over the Internet among parties with no prior relationships through reliance on digital signature certificates issued by trusted third parties to establish the identity of the parties. Many supporters of digital signatures believed legislation was essential to achieve rapid, widespread adoption of this use of this technology. By 2001 when this article was written, however, it had already become clear that the main commercial application for digital signatures was not “open” Internet commerce among strangers but “closed” Internet commerce systems among parties already in contractual privity with each other or to a sys-tem administrator. In addition to “closed” Internet commerce systems, another major application for digital signature technology exists within network security infrastructures that are transparent to transacting parties as they operate, such as secure sockets layer certificates that identify servers. The story of how digital signatures came to be over-hyped and underutilized in electronic commerce is complex. There is mounting evidence that trying to use asymmetric cryptography as a signature on a contract is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, and the effort to get that square peg into that round hole has created a phenomenal sink hole into which countless individuals and or-ganizations have poured vast resources with few tangible payoffs. One of the most interesting puzzles surrounding digital signatures is how so many individuals and organizations that should have known better could have been duped into falling for the hype for so long in the face of mount-ing evidence of its inaccuracy.

Keywords: digital signature, public key infrastructure, electronic signature, authentication, Internet, electronic commerce

Suggested Citation

Winn, Jane, The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Shocking Truth About Digital Signatures and Internet Commerce (January 1, 2001). Idaho Law Review, Vol. 37, 2001, Available at SSRN:

Jane Winn (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States


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