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Burns bill would ease encryption rules

Senator Conrad Burns introduced a bill to relax encryption technology after winning wide bipartisan support.

After attracting wide bipartisan support, including the endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, Sen. Conrad Burns introduced a bill today intended to liberalize the government's policies toward encryption technology used on the Internet.

The Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era (Pro-Code) Act seeks to change current laws that classify digital encryption technology as a munition and therefore under strict usage and export controls. Instead, the new legislation would promote the wide use and export of encryption software.

The bill also prohibits the government from maintaining a key-escrow, or "skeleton key," system that would require encryption technology vendors to register keys to their codes with the government. The Clinton administration has said that such a system is necessary for law enforcement officials to investigate crimes committed or discussed over the Net.

In a statement, Burns described the bill's three main objectives: the promotion of electronic commerce, the success of which depends upon strong encryption; the competitiveness of American software companies with their foreign counterparts; and the protection of intellectual property and privacy.

"Unfortunately, American businesses and computer users face a threat--and it's a threat from their own government--because the current administration won't let American companies export encryption at a level higher than 40 bits," the Montana Republican said. "Companies can sell stronger encryption here at home, but it's too expensive to create two different standards, so they don't."

The Burns bill was originally scheduled for introduction several weeks ago, but the senator delayed introduction to broaden his support. Even Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who co-sponsored a competing encryption bill earlier this year, has agreed to endorse the Burns version.

The Leahy bill supported the key-escrow system that Burns opposes. "This is a cleaner, leaner bill," said Alan Davidson, staff counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "This is the electronics commerce piece of the puzzle."

The center and other privacy and technology advocate groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the American Civil Liberties Union, have formed the Internet Privacy Coalition in support of the Burns bill. The Coalition has launched the Golden Key Campaign to ask individuals and companies alike to display a golden key and envelope on their home page to show support for encryption technology.

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