Encryption-bill sponsors demand House action

Tuesday, June 30, 1998

More than 40 House Democrats are leaning on House Speaker Newt Gingrich, urging him to schedule debate and a vote on legislation to relax restrictions on encryption.

The Democrats seek passage of H.R. 695, a measure known as the Security and Freedom Through Encryption–or SAFE–Act. Although the bill has cleared five different House committees since its introduction last September, it remains in limbo because Gingrich hasn't put it on the floor schedule.

“This Congress' continuing failure to address this problem threatens our international competitiveness, our economy and our national security,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to Gingrich.

The Democrats also claim that current policy forces American software companies to join with foreign competitors to compete in the software market. Without action now, America's controlling interest in encryption will be lost to other countries, they argue.

Encryption programs permit computers to scramble data so they can't be read without a numerical access key. Current federal law prohibits posting all-but-unbreakable encryption on the Internet or sending it abroad on a disk without a license, saying that to do so violates export codes.

Currently, computer users in the United States can use “strong encryption,” even when it has no built-in key to allow police to unscramble the code. But export laws limit the strength of codes that can be sent abroad.

For years, the computer industry and law enforcement have been at odds over how much control the government should have over encryption software.

Encryption experts contend such laws violate free speech, because they create a prior restraint against computer programmers and others who wish to exchange programs or encryption over the Internet. Government access to encryption codes, they argue, infringes on privacy rights as well.

But government officials contend that encryption controls prevent illegal use of the software technology. Some say widespread use of encryption hinders effective law enforcement.

Sponsors of the SAFE Act say their bill is designed to guarantee computer users the right to use any encryption and to forbid government-mandated “key recovery” systems. The bill, if passed, would increase strength restrictions on exported encryption.

Last month, Sens. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the E-PRIVACY Act, an encryption export relief measure similar to the House's SAFE Act. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., recently announced he would allow debate and a possible vote on the measure before session's end.

The Democrats had tried last week to get Gingrich to schedule action on the SAFE Act before the House recessed for the Fourth of July holidays but weren't successful. They plan to try to persuade him again when the House reconvenes in two weeks.

Reps. Dick Armey and Bob Goodlatte joined the Democrats in pressing for passage of the SAFE Act. In a letter to Republican House members, they said encouraging the widespread use of American-made encryption would bolster electronic commerce and protect both privacy and free-speech rights.

Armey and Goodlatte cited recent studies showing that the current encryption policy may cost upwards of $90 billion and 200,000 jobs over the next three years. The budget for implementing a government-mandated key recovery system is projected to cost more than $7 billion each year.

Bryant Hilton, spokesman for the Americans for Computer Privacy, says it's difficult to gauge the chances of any encryption bill passing in the waning days of the current session.

“There are obviously a lot of other technology issues, such as the Year 2000 problem, competing for attention,” Hilton said. “But there are a lot of co-sponsors behind SAFE in the House and E-PRIVACY in the Senate, so it seems like there's good support from both sides.”