SANTA CLARA, California--Encryption was at the top of a list of high-tech issues addressed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Bob Goodlatte at a roundtable discussion with a Silicon Valley consortium here today.
At the meeting with bipartisan high-tech coalition TechNet, held at the headquarters of networking firm 3Com, Gingrich said the House will try to pass by July or this fall an encryption export relief bill.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich on ending the encryption debate
Under the current law, companies have to promise to incorporate key recovery into products to get an export license. Key recovery gives law enforcement officials who have obtained a court order a "spare key" to unlock the codes that secure email or computer files.
Law enforcement claims it needs the keys to track criminals that use encryption. But the tech industry says key-recovery mandates inhibit U.S. companies' ability to compete against foreign companies that use unrestricted cryptography. Consumer advocates further argue that encryption helps law-abiding citizens protect their computer files from theft, fraud, and interception.
Gingrich said today that the House's goal is to pass a bill that will be acceptable to both sides. Earlier this month, Senate leaders promised to do the same.
"I don't think it should be a compromise. The people who understand the technology and the people who understand national security have to come together to really work out a solution that is superior to either position," he added. "I'm looking for a genuine synthesis. I start with the premise that encryption will ultimately be universal and people will be able to do it all over the world."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich on overhauling the e-rate
Goodlatte authored the Security and Freedom Through Encryption (SAFE) Act, which, since its introduction last year, has gained 250 cosponsors. There are five versions of the bill now, and at least one gives law enforcement quick access to unlock secure messages within the United States during criminal investigations.
More than 40 members of the House sent a letter to Gingrich last week calling for passage of the SAFE Act by July. Another bill on the table, the E-Privacy Act, would lift crypto export regulations for products that are generally available on the international market, would prohibit key-recovery mandates, and would make it a felony to use encryption to "conceal incriminating communications or information about a crime."
Still, Goodlatte was realistic about what it would take to pass an export relief bill, as he is a veteran participant in the long standoff over encryption between security agencies such as the FBI and industry and privacy advocates.
"We don't want to have a domestic key-recovery system where every law-abiding citizen in the country has to put their key in a location where law enforcement can get a copy of it without their knowledge," he said today.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte on the effects of the encryption policy
The Republican leaders came to the roundtable to show the high-tech community that they are serious about the issues it is facing.
Aside from the encryption debate, Gingrich discussed a federal program to wire schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities to the Net; promised to raise the limit on visas for foreign high-tech workers; and vowed to pass legislation to safeguard copyrights for digital works. Goodlatte also addressed protection of consumers' Net privacy and the debate over filtering online access at public institutions.
Gingrich said Republicans will work to overhaul the so-called e-rate program, which taps the nation's universal service fund to dole out discounts to schools and libraries for Net access. He said he wants Congress to remove the Federal Communications Commission from overseeing the e-rate, and instead set up a block grant program. In other words, the states would be provided with a lump sum of money and then would decide for themselves how to administer the funds to applicants.
The White House said in March that it wanted to mandate that schools and libraries slated for Net access discounts via the e-rate program install filtering software on computers to protect children from "inappropriate" content. Goodlatte said today that he is not in favor of tying the e-rate to a filtering mandate--instead, he proposed it should be a local choice.
"I am very much in favor of filtering. I have not come to the point of saying that in order to receive the funds you have to do that," he said. "I don't criticize libraries that attempt to filter Net access for minors. You don't have to have everything that comes over the Net available in a local library, particularly for minors."
Goodlatte also said he would be in favor of legislation that set up fair information practices for the collection of personal data from surfers, which was the subject of a Commerce Department summit last week.
"I hope the industry moves forward to address this issue," he said. "If there is not some protection built into the system where people can opt not to have information captured about them, then I think there will be legislative initiatives in that area."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte on Net access filtering
"There should be some provision for people who are genuinely abusing the system, but there should not be a provision that makes it harder for companies that are obeying the law and doing the right thing," Gingrich noted.
He added that the House wants to pass a bill this year limiting firms' liability on the Year 2000 problem.
"I hope we'll be able to pass a bill late this fall or early next year which will create some ground rules to protect people from nuisance lawsuits," Gingrich said. "It's very important we have proper focus on solving the problem, not worrying about litigation."
Overall, 3Com seemed receptive to the House Republican leaders and their knowledge of the issues. Goodlatte is making the rounds at other companies as well. Already he has stopped off at Netscape Communications, Adope Systems, and Intel, to name a few.
"We are a very pro-business Congress that wants to address these issues and we want to make sure that folks here in Silicon Valley know that we're here to listen," Goodlatte said. "But we're also here to let them know that this is a party that deserves support from those who believe in the free enterprise system and less government regulation."
But there were some sticking points for 3Com executives. A spokesman said he was disappointed by the House leadership's stance on the e-rate.
"The speaker chose to focus on ideas for schools, but he didn't discuss libraries or rural health care providers," said David Abramson, who is director of public affairs for 3Com and has worked closely with the FCC on the e-rate program.
"We continue to believe strongly that we should build an infrastructure that benefits patients, disadvantaged youth, teachers, and those who can't afford [Net access]," he added. "To slow the process this way is criminal."