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House approves anti-terrorism bill

The House today approved a version of new anti-terrorist legislation, but to the relief of online activists, dropped provisions to police the Net and to restrict the use of encryption.

The United States House of Representatives tonight approved the Anti-Terrorism act of 1996 by a sweeping 389 to 22 vote, but to the relief of Net activists passed a version free of amendments that would have regulated Net content, restricted encryption technology, and expanded the use of wiretapping.

The Democrats fought hard for the encryption, Internet, and wiretapping provisions, but lost to arguments from conservatives and libertarians that the provisions would be an infringement of citizens' First Amendments rights. The law that was approved by the house also did not include the amendment re-introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein that would have made it a felony to publish information about bombs and bomb-making on the Internet.

The act was put on rush order this week by President Clinton after the Atlanta Olympics bombing and the TWA Flight 800 explosion.

Online activists praised the approved version of the bill and were quick to give credit to last-minute lobbying by the Net community to get the online provisions of the legislation removed. "This passage of this bill is certainly not bad for the Internet and those us who are activists deserve some credit for this. Not that our phone calls and interest changed their minds necessarily, but what appears to have happened is that the privacy concerns were significant enough that the House decided not to mess with them and I think that's a victory," said Jonah Seiger, policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We still have a lot to do, but we have good powerful allies on the Hill and at least the House today hasn't overreacted to the point of endangering privacy and security on the Net," he added.

But some Democrats are still angry that not all of their desired provisions were included. "[This version] is all bark and no bite? The bill is missing the important wiretapping provisions that would allow law enforcement to find and stop terrorists before they kill," said US Representative John Conyers (D-MI) in a statement.

If approved by the Senate, the aviation security section of the act would require the Federal Aviation Administration to take measures that include providing the best available bomb detection equipment to all airports that are currently used in European and Israeli, to establish performance standards for airport security personnel, to authorize criminal background checks for airport screeners, to provide the 50 largest airports with bomb-sniffing dogs, and to upgrade the security requirements for small aircrafts.

The anti-terrorism section of the bill adds several terrorism-related crimes to the list of offenses included in the federal antiracketeering law. Under this section, the penalty for unlawful disclosure of information obtained from a wiretap doubles from 5 to 10 years.

The bill went to the Senate today. Supporters would like the bill to be approved without changes and then sent to the President. The Senate may vote as early as Saturday or may decide to make changes and wait to approve its own version until next month.

"I don't think we're out of the woods yet," said online activist Declan McCullagh. "The Senate may or may not act tomorrow, but I think the Net has a reprieve from the Net crackdown in terms of bomb information until September," he said.

Related stories:
Vote imminent on anti-terrorist law
Terrorism fight spreads to Net