In a setback to the high-tech industry and privacy advocates in cyberspace, a House committee today overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would overhaul the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act.
In essence, the amendment would return control of all encryption exports to the president, who would set a "maximum level" for exportable encryption once a year. After a one-time review, all products that didn't exceed that limit would be allowed to be exported.
Sponsored by Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania) and Ron Dellums (D-California), the amendment is a far cry from the original impetus of the SAFE act, which set to significantly loosen government export controls on encryption.
"My amendment sets reasonable limits on the export of encryption technology--limits measured by a product's threat to our national security," Weldon said in a prepared statement. "This amendment represents a responsible compromise that allows our companies to compete while still protecting U.S. national security interests."
Opponents of export controls saw it a different way. "This amendment would hinder the widespread availability of encryption," said Jonah Seiger, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "Until now, this bill has been moving in a positive direction for us. This is a setback."
The amendment might also prohibit current exceptions for the export of certain types of encryption software, such as those for banks, he noted.
The bill now heads for the House Intelligence Committee, where further amendments are likely to be added. Both the Intelligence and the National Security committees tend to favor export controls, because they view encryption as a threat to information-gathering activities by U.S. military and law enforcement officials.
"Unfortunately, it's very hard when you put privacy up against national security," added Seiger. "Traditionally, privacy loses, and that's in part what happened today."
Besides sparking criticism from civil libertarians and many within the computer industry, the amendment doesn't sit well with officials at the Commerce Department, which administers encryption export controls. Undersecretary of Commerce William Reinsch told Reuters that he opposes a portion of the amendment that would give the secretary of defense veto power over encryption export decisions.
"Giving the secretary of defense a veto is inconsistent with the president's executive order and inconsistent with the policies of four prior administrations," Reinsch said. "The administration thinks all relevant agencies should have a seat at the table and none should have a veto."
Today's amendment and any amendments that may be offered by the Intelligence Committee are by no means a defeat of the bill. Instead, they would have to be reconciled with versions of the bill already approved by the House Judiciary and International Relations committees. That reconciliation most likely would have to happen on the House floor. The legislation has 252 cosponsors.
Still, there is increasing speculation that it will never see the light of day. "I am not sure if the bill will even make it to the House floor this session, and in light of its controversy I am not sure why it would be scheduled," said Floyd Spence, chairman of the National Security Committee, at today's hearing. Lobbyists speaking on background agreed the bill may stall before reaching the floor, citing other pending bills that usually receive a higher priority from Congress.
Staff aides to Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Virginia), the bill's sponsor, could not immediately be reached for comment.