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Encryption cybercast, Round 2

Government and industry officials will square off in another cybercast on encryption.

In what will be Congress's second live cybercast this month, Netscape Communications chief executive Jim Barksdale, FBI Director Louis Freeh, and senior Clinton administration officials are scheduled to testify this week on a bill that would eliminate government controls on the use and export of encryption technology.

The Senate Commerce Committee is using RealAudio to cybercast hearings on the Pro-Code Act. Listeners will also be able to participate in real-time online forums, send questions to witnesses, and view video stills of the proceedings at the Encryption Policy Resource Page.

The system passed its first test in late June, when the same bill was debated in subcommittee. About 50 members of the international Net audience sent in questions for legislators and panelists.

As in the subcommittee hearings, Barksdale and other industry executives will line up in favor of passing the bill. This week marks the first time that Freeh and other law enforcement officials, including National Security Agency deputy director William P. Crowell, will appear before Congress to argue that the government needs to maintain an encryption registration, or escrow, system that would let police decrypt files and messages obtained as evidence in criminal investigations.

The Clinton administration's latest encryption policy proposal--dubbed "Clipper III" by opponents, after the ill-fated censorship chip that was proposed and rejected earlier--offers to relax export limits in exchange for such an escrow system, but the Pro-Code Act would make the escrow system illegal. The hearings are expected to focus on this issue of weighing law enforcement's efforts to keep tabs on online criminal activity and the need to encourage companies and individuals to use strong encryption technology that offers privacy for online communications.

"There's no discussion in the Pro-Code bill of the public safety issue," a senior administration official said last week. "Widespread commercial availability of strong encryption would be a big encouragement for criminals to use it."

But the genie is out of the bottle, advocates of strong encryption argue, because foreign software companies are already selling products with much more than their U.S. companies are able to export under existing controls.

The cybercasts of the hearings are a joint venture of the Center for Democracy and Technology, online magazine HotWired, Voters Telecommunications Watch, and Internet service provider Digex, all of which would like to see the bill passed and, more generally, to educate both Net users and Congress.

"A lot of recent Internet legislation has been driven by Congress's lack of understanding about the Net itself," said Jonah Seiger, CDT policy analyst and catalyst behind the cybercasts. "Reciprocally, the Net community doesn't have a real good understanding of the legislative process. This serves to educate both sides."