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Crypto bill SAFE out of committee

Fierce lobbying by the high-tech industry appears to have paid off as a key committee in the House approves the SAFE Act without domestic encryption controls.

Fierce lobbying on behalf of the high-tech industry appears to have paid off in its holy war over encryption, as a key committee in the House of Representatives approved a closely watched bill that would loosen the government's control on the export of encryption products.

Industry lobbyists had feared the House's Commerce Committee might try to sabotage the bill, known as the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act, by approving a substitute amendment. Offered by Reps. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) and Thomas Manton (D-New York), the amendment would have radically overhauled SAFE by mandating domestic controls on the technology. Just last week, lobbyists and staffers said the amendment was almost sure to be approved by the committee.

But the Commerce Committee rejected it and approved SAFE 35 to 16, according to the Center for Democracy and Technology, which opposes government control of encryption. An attorney with the group said the vote was a real victory for those fighting for privacy on the Internet.

"We dodged a bullet today," said Alan Davidson, staff counsel at the CDT, adding that stiff opposition to the amendment over the last several days was responsible for the Commerce Committee's reversal. That opposition included a letter written Monday by 63 industry and trade organization representatives, a separate letter written the following day in which some 30 law professors argued the measure likely was unconstitutional, and a third protest today from scientists arguing that unfettered encryption was essential.

"The calls from the constituents on the Internet really made a big difference," Davidson added. "We've heard reports from the [committee] members that the phones were ringing off the hook."

The committee passed an amendment to SAFE that would create a special government body that would assist law enforcement in coping with encryption in the course of investigations.

Despite enjoying the support of more than 252 representatives, SAFE has faced stiff opposition. Two committees have offered substitute amendments to the bill that would radically overhaul its effect.

The bill now moves to the rules committee where various versions passed by other committees must be reconciled. Lobbyists and staffers speaking on background have said the bill is unlikely to reach the House floor this session.