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John Hancock, We Hardly Knew Ye


Up Front: I-Way Patrol

John Hancock, We Hardly Knew Ye

WHEN CONGRESS SENT THE Y2K liability legislation to President Clinton this July, lawmakers were eager to show they were technology-savvy. They E-mailed an electronic version of the bill to the White House. But the President couldn't sign it, because electronic signatures aren't legally binding. So Congress sent the bill over on paper, and Clinton signed the old-fashioned way: in ink.

But that may not happen to the next President. Congress is drafting a bill that would legalize digital signatures. The government would set guidelines to validate and secure online transactions, which should be a boon for E-commerce. Brokers, such as Charles Schwab, for instance, say cyber-signatures will make online trading more accessible to the public. If the bill becomes law, your "signature," a series of encrypted keystrokes known only to you, will be just as binding as the "pen-and-ink" version. With no opposition, and the backing of such heavyweights as IBM and General Electric, the bill could pass by yearend. In all three versions of the legislation now pending, Congress would preempt state regulations on validating E-signatures, until the states have their own policies in place.By Alyssa Tracy; Edited by Robert McNattReturn to top

A Coffee Break at Starbucks?

HOWARD SCHULTZ, CHAIRMAN and CEO of Starbucks Coffee, has landed in hot water of late for seeming to place the company's Internet ambitions ahead of its core operations. Schultz has stated that he wants a cushy Starbucks Web site that sells everything from kitchen items to couches. But in early July, Starbucks' share price plummeted when the company forecast lower-than-expected earnings in 1999, causing some to wonder whether Schultz's Internet fever has gotten out of hand. "At Starbucks, the Internet has become a distraction," says Douglas Christopher, an analyst at Crowell, Weedon & Co.

Such criticism isn't stopping Schultz from steaming ahead. Sources in Silicon Valley tell BUSINESS WEEK that Starbucks is investing some $20 million into Austin (Tex.)-based startup living.com, a company that plans to begin selling home furnishings and accessories online on July 26. Although Schultz won't sit on living.com's board, he is expected to lend the company his retailing expeRtise. The move follows Starbucks' failed attempt to acquireWilliams-Sonoma, whose online store is expected to be launched in November. Starbucks declined to comment.By Linda Himelstein and Louise Lee; Edited by Robert McNattReturn to top

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Uncle Sam May Hit a Gusher

SAN FRANCISCO-BASED OIL giant Chevron says that it is in talks with the federal government to settle complaints that the company underpaid the Interior Dept. by more than $100 million in royalties for oil pumped from public lands. If a deal is reached, Chevron would be the second big oil company to settle charges that it stiffed Uncle Sam. Mobil was the first. It admitted no wrongdoing, but it paid out $45 million in August, 1998.

A Chevron spokeswoman had no comment on what a final deal might look like, saying details of the company's offer are proprietary. But sources close to the discussions say that the company could be on the hook for $130 million. Chevron has already paid $110 million to settle similar lawsuits in California and Alaska. Overall, the royalty underpayment issue has already cost Big Oil some $5 billion.

Meanwhile, oil patch legislators, led by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) want to give refiners a break from new rules that raise royalties. They want to freeze implementation of the regs, hoping that George W. Bush, presumed friendly to Big Oil, will be elected President next year.By Lorraine Woellert; Edited by Robert McNattReturn to top


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