The Washington Post, November 8, 1995
The letters deepen an industry-government rift that began only days after federal officials unveiled an outline of what they hoped would be a palatable plan at an industry meeting in August.
Two separate coalitions are criticizing the administration's draft proposal, which the government circulated on the Internet on Monday.
Current export regulations prohibit companies froan sending overseas any encryption, or data-scrambling technology, that exceeds a certain degree of sophistication. The government argues that it needs to be able to peek at messages and files with proper court authorization -- to do its job of protecting U.S. citizens from terrorist groups and other malevolent organizations.
In July, some French students demonstrated they could readily break the type of encryption technology that the U.S. government lets companies export. In August, the administration said it would let companies include more complex types of encryption, provided they pledged to entrust to an authorized agent a "spare key," or the means for unscrambling the information.
Unlike early proposals in which the government said it would hold such keys, the administration is suggesting that companies and individuals would be able to select private keyholders, much the way people pick their banks.
But after a brief honeymoon, industry and civil liberties groups began to find flaws with the details in the new proposals. This week's letters indicate that whatever fragile compromise the government had hoped it had found has grown even weaker.
One coalition, pulled together by the Washington advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology, includes about three dozen high-tech companies and associations. The group has promised to draft an alternative plan within six months.
"There is a very serious message here: that national security can't be controlling the Internet," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the center. "There are other issues, global competitiveness and privacy, that need to be placed in the balance -- and the administration's policy doesn't do that."
A second coalition of about 10 free-market and libertarian groups, led by another policy group, Americans for Tax Reform, plans to send their letter to Gingrich in the next day or two. The group contends the administration's encryption proposals are an encroachment on citizens' civil rights.
The administration's proposals would not restrict tbe encryption technologies that people use within U.S. boundaries. But it would require that if they electronically send an encrypted message to parties outside the United States, a spare key must be stored with an authorized agency.
"Even though we recognize [the administration] has worked hard on its proposals, it's not the right direction," said Rebecca Gould, director of policy at the Business Software Alliance, a trade association of software firms.
"We've been in this [debate] since July 1994," she added, a long time for companies that churn out a new version of most products every 18 months. "That means lost sales for us and a loss of U.S. industry sales abroad."