Congressional committees pass crypto, digital signature bills
The U.S. Senate and House Commerce committees yesterday approved bills that would
liberalize the encryption export regulations, while the Senate committee also passed
bills calling for the promotion of digital signatures and filtering software to block
The House Security and Freedom through Encryption (SAFE) Act removes the
government's restrictions on exporting strong encryption if a comparable encryption
product is commercially available outside the U.S. It also bars the government from
requiring key recovery, whereby the government would have access to keys to decode
encrypted messages for law-enforcement purposes.
Government officials argue they need to control the export of strong encryption for
national-security purposes to fight terrorism, while vendors argue that the
restrictions hamper their global competitiveness because strong encryption is readily
available outside the U.S. The government wants vendors to develop encryption software
that includes a key-recovery mechanism.
Several amendments approved by the House committee would require that a comparable
encryption product be available in a country outside the U.S. in order for a U.S.
company to export similar technology there; bar export to the Chinese military; allow
the secretary of Commerce to deny the export of encryption products if they would be
used to harm national security, sexually exploit children or execute other illegal
activities; require the secretary of Commerce to consult with the secretaries of State
and Defense, the director of Central Intelligence and the attorney general when
reviewing a product; and subject a person to criminal penalties for not providing
access to encrypted data if a subpoena were served and the person had the capability to
decrypt the data.
Senate proposes stronger encryption exports
Meanwhile, the Senate encryption bill, proposed by John McCain, an Arizona
Republican, would allow exporting encryption key lengths up to 64 bits. In general,
companies currently must get a license to export encryption higher than 56 bits in key
The McCain encryption bill also would allow export of stronger "non-defense"
encryption to "responsible entities" and governments in the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development. It would, however, allow the secretary of
Commerce to prohibit export of particular encryption products to an individual or
organization in a foreign country.
That measure would also create an Encryption Export Advisory Board to review
applications for exemption of encryption of over 64 bits and make recommendations to
the secretary of Commerce, as well as authorize more funding to law enforcement and
national security agencies to "upgrade facilities and intelligence." The bill would ask
the National Institute of Standards and Technology to establish an advanced encryption
standard by Jan. 1, 2002.
"The bill carefully balances our national security and law-enforcement interests
while updating current laws on encryption technology," McCain said in a statement. "It
is illogical to deny U.S. producers the ability to compete globally if similar products
are already being offered by foreign companies."
Digital signatures addressed
On the digital signature front, Sen. Spencer Abraham, a Michigan Republican, said
the Millennium Digital Commerce Act he sponsored would "ensure that individuals and
organizations in different sttates are held to their agreements and obligations even if
their respective states have different rules concerning electronically signed
The Abraham bill would prohibit state law from denying that digital contracts are
legal solely because they are in electronic form; establish guidelines for
international use of electronic signatures that would remove obstacles to electronic
transactions; and allow the market to determine the type of authentication technology
used in international commerce.
The Senate Commerce Committee also grappled with Internet censorship by approving
another McCain-sponsored bill that would require schools and libraries receiving
universal service discounts for Internet access to use filtering technology on
computers children access.
Alan Davidson, staff counsel for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and
Technology, said "it was a mixed day for the Internet on Capital Hill."
Beware the 'dark side'
While legislators realize the potential of electronic commerce and favor
liberalizing encryption export to advance it, they are fearful of what they see as
the "dark side" of the Internet -- content that might be objectionable, according to
Rather than require filtering software in schools and libraries, legislators should
offer educational institutions the flexibility to choose "acceptable use or monitoring
policies," he said.
"Mandating that every school and library filter access to the Internet is not going
to be the best way to protect kids," he said. "In additional to the fact that the bill
has constitutional problems, it mandates one technological approach without regard to
the more effective ways that local communities are already protecting kids."
The bills may be taken up by other committees before they go to the floor of the two
houses for a vote, he said.