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Congress tackles high-tech legislation

From overhauling encryption export limits to Net filtering at schools and validating digital signatures, Congress does overtime to reinvigorate rehashed high-tech legislation.

From overhauling encryption export limits to Net filtering at schools and validating digital signatures, Congress is doing overtime to reinvigorate rehashed high-tech legislation this week.

In the most notable moves, proposals were made to revamp the Clinton administration's strict licensing regime for the export of strong data-scrambling products, which help secure computer users' private communication.

Capitol Hill's digital age policymakers, the Senate and House Commerce committees, approved bills yesterday to ease these crypto export controls. Critics denounce the regulations because the current easy-export standard--at 56 bits--has been cracked many times, and stronger products already are freely available around the world.

The government has long regulated encryption based on law enforcement assertions that tech-savvy criminals will use the products to conceal illegal activity. But opponents say the rules cost the software industry profits and threaten global computer privacy.

Although he once supported domestic regulations on encryption, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) stood by his change of heart to help advance his Promote Reliable Online Transactions to Encourage Commerce and Trade (PROTECT) Act.

The bill allows the immediate export of 64-bit crypto products and could do the same for even stronger standards, such as 128-bit, by 2002. The PROTECT Act also prohibits domestic controls on products and permits the unfettered shipment of any encryption product that provides "plain text" access capabilities, such as key recovery, which creates a built-in spare key to unlock encrypted data.

"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."

The Senate Intelligence Committee, where crypto relief legislation has hit snags in the past, will now consider the bill.

The House Commerce Committee also backed crypto liberation, clearing the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act (SAFE), which states that companies must only submit to a one-time review from the Commerce Department before shipping generally available crypto products.

However, to placate law enforcement concerns, the legislation also makes it a felony to use encryption in the furtherance of a crime. And the House committee also tacked on a controversial amendment that would require crypto makers to help law enforcement crack users' private codes when presented with a court order.

"This amendment raised significant privacy and Fifth Amendment concerns by leaving encryption users open to prosecution without clear guidelines for compliance," the Center for Democracy and Technology stated in its analysis of the revised bill, which can now proceed to the full House for a vote.

Boosting e-commerce
Crypto wasn't the only Net security issue topping lawmakers' agenda this week.

The Senate Commerce Committee also passed by voice vote the Millennium Digital Commerce Act to make commercial contracts signed with electronic signatures legally binding in any state.

There are numerous forms of digital/electronic signatures, which raise a swarm of legal and liability issues but are seen as critical to the future of online commerce. E-signatures range from the equivalent to hand-signed paper documents to certified IDs similar to a passport or driver's license.

The most talked-about digital signatures are secured by encryption and attached to email messages and other electronic documents and handed out by a "certificate authority" that takes steps to verify a person's true identity.

The bill is technology neutral but would preempt state law until the states enact uniform standards.

"This bill will ensure that individuals and organizations in different states are held to their agreements and obligations even if their respective states have different rules concerning electronically signed documents," Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan), the bill's coauthor, said in a statement.

Don't forget the kids
Although the crypto and digital signature bills' progress are generally seen as a boon for business, another proposal that made headway is a cause of grave concern for free speech advocates.

The Senate Commerce Committee cleared McCain's pet legislation to make schools and libraries install technology to screen out child pornography and obscenity, as well as material deemed "harmful" to minors based on community standards.

The filtering would be required as a condition for receiving a federal Net access subsidy, known as the e-rate. The action adds to the momentum of the House's passage last week of a similar amendment to the Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act.

Libraries with only one line of Net access can decide not to use filters but would have to develop some type of "acceptable use" policy for online usage.

First Amendment watchdogs still maintain that the bill is a "one-size-fits-all" solution to a problem that needs to be addressed locally.

"We believe that the majority of Americans share our conviction that parents and teachers--not the federal government--should provide children with guidance about accessing information on the Internet," a broad group of civil rights groups stated in a letter to Congress yesterday.

"The technology [this bill] would enshrine in federal law is evolving, but in its current immature state it is often ineffective," the letter continued. "As a result, filtering software frequently restricts access to valuable, constitutionally protected online speech about topics such as safe sex, AIDS, gay and lesbian issues, news articles, and women's rights."

Already, at least one federal court in Virginia has declared that mandatory library filtering--for all patrons--violates the First Amendment. The ruling was not appealed.