Thursday 22 February 2018

'Yes sir, we accept digital ... as long as it's printed out first'

Let's forget about faxes and move forward into the future
Let's forget about faxes and move forward into the future
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What is it with Irish firms' fixation with scanners and printers? Why do so many of us still sweat when something legal in a digital format is suggested? Is there some sort of wet-ink Illuminati pulling strings behind the scenes?

This is the conversation I had last week with a well-known Irish company about a document I was to return:

Me: Hi, I'm just wondering whether I can digitally agree to that document you just sent me?

Clerk: "Yes absolutely. Just print it out, sign it, scan it back in and email it to us."

Okay, I don't actually have access to a printer. Can I just email back saying I agree to the terms?

"I'm afraid not, we need it to be signed."

Can I use a digital signature like DocuSign instead?

"We don't have access to digital signatures at this time."

Oh it's easy, you just go onto their site and ...

"We don't have access to digital signatures at this time."

Okay. Well look, if I write out the terms of the pre-disclosure, take a picture of it and email it would that work?

"No. It's best to print it, scan it and email it back."

Right. Well, if I write it out and sign it and send it to your office by post, will that work?

"Oh yes, by post is fine."

In that case, can I just hand you the same handwritten piece of paper with my signature?

"No, it has to sent. Or else printed, scanned and emailed."

If it has to be sent, can it be couriered?


But I can't drop it into your office myself?

"No, it has to be sent."

Not to be funny, but is the key thing that I pay for a service to get it to you?

"It has to be sent to us."

But not through my own person delivering it to you?

"You can post it or have it couriered."

If I find a fax machine, can I fax it to you?


Can I fax the handwritten version?

"No. It has to be a printed version."

But if you accept a handwritten version by post and you accept a printed version by fax, can you not accept a handwritten version by fax?


This is by no means an isolated example. So far this year, I've had several such exchanges with companies (including some big technology firms) over the ways in which they do or don't accept legal confirmation of agreements or documents. As above, some of the exclusions are bizarre.

In my case, such agreements are generally for things like a pre-disclosure arrangement over a product or an embargo.

With the particular company above, I ultimately had to go and find a printer, print out the document, photograph it with my phone (I didn't mention that bit as I wanted to avoid another rabbit hole around photos versus 'proper' scans), email that photo to myself and then copy it into a 'reply' email.

The fallacy that digital actions are not regarded quite as legally valid as paper-based ones is starkly illuminated by William Fry's Sinéad Keavey on page 7.

It could, of course, be instantly proven with any of the companies I have wrestled with over their insistence on taking scanned prints instead of purely digital formats. I could simply 'CC' them on an email accusing their quality control department of faking a product's authenticity. It would take about 30 seconds for that email to suddenly become a powerful legal document in their eyes.

But all to no avail. In Ireland, the default position for electronic agreements in 2017 remains that an email needs to be printed, signed, re-scanned and re-emailed for it to be done 'properly'.

It is not just public sector bodies that operate in this kind of sovereign paper logic. Banks, lawyers and just about anyone in the construction sector appear to find it difficult to part with their A4 binders and registered post.

Generally, digital formats (which have been legal in Ireland for around 17 years) are still regarded as "IT". As a result, a huge number of Irish businesses like to use a sticky tape approach to advancing formal agreements.

Eventually, this will all change. Indeed, a growing number of companies already accept digital signatures.

Kudos to them.

To the rest of the Luddites, get ready for more and more awkward exchanges with customers and business partners.

Indo Business

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