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Germany urges strong encryption

The German economics minister calls for governments to give Internet users easy access to strong encryption at a European Union conference.

Germany's economics minister today called on governments to give Internet users easy access to strong encryption, raising the specter of international conflict over U.S. policy limiting crypto exports.

The comments were made as more than 40 foreign officials and 80 business leaders gathered at the European Union's Global Information Network conference in Bonn, Germany. The meeting is considered a European bellwether for response toward last week's sweeping White House policy on electronic commerce, which reiterated its stand on encryption limitations.

"Users can only protect themselves against having data manipulated, destroyed, or spied on through the use of strong encryption procedures," said Guenter Rexrodt, the German economics minister, according to Reuters. "That is why we have to use all of our powers to promote such procedures instead of blocking them," he added in his opening statement.

The White House e-commerce policy calls for no new taxes on the Internet, but it elaborates very little on current U.S. encryption regulations, which the software industry and privacy advocates have criticized as bad for business and personal rights.

"Rexrodt found the weak link in the U.S. e-commerce proposal," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Represented at the conference by Commerce Department Secretary William Daley, the United States hopes to use the conference to gain support for the administration's white paper on e-commerce.

"We have one option: to move forward as partners," Daley said at the conference. "To do less is to risk turning this next great economic stage into another dividing line among nations, where language, culture, geography, currency, history, and technology still keep us from working together."

Under current rules, U.S. software makers cannot export strong encryption unless law enforcement is guaranteed fast access to the "plain text," or decrypted messages and data, without the user's knowledge.

Law enforcement officials argue that such measures, akin to wiretapping a telephone line, are necessary to thwart suspected criminals who use the Internet to communicate. Obtaining such data through a system known as "key recovery," law officials must first have a court order.

U.S. regulations are not the only concern for European businesses. Thomas Middelhoff, designated chairman of Bertelsmann, cited German data security rules, French encryption laws, and confusing jurisdiction between Germany's federal and state governments as other obstacles to European competitiveness in the online world.

The German parliament also just passed a wide-ranging law that addresses online issues such as personal privacy, protection of minors, and intellectual property rights. (See related story)