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Encryption vote delayed

The Senate Commerce Committee postpones a vote on the Pro-Code bill, which would reverse federal laws that block the export of strong software encryption.

The Senate Commerce Committee today postponed a vote on the Pro-Code bill, legislation that seeks to reverse federal laws that block the export of strong software encryption.

The bill, known officially as the Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era Act, could have gone to the main floor of the Senate as early as today if it had passed the committee. But the panel, which held two widely publicized cybercast hearings on the bill this summer, will now wait at least until next Tuesday to decide its fate after scheduling conflicts caused today's delay.

"If (a vote) happens at all, it'll happen in the next ten days," Jonah Seiger, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an online rights and privacy group that has helped produce audio cybercasts of the summer hearings.

The Pro-Code bill, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), would not only abolish export controls on encryption but also outlaw a "key escrow" system in which all parties using strong encryption would store their access codes, or keys, with a neutral third party.

The Clinton administration favors such a system, as long as third-party key holders such as banks or notaries public agree to give law enforcement officials at the local, state, and federal levels access to clients' keys when presented with a search warrant. Pro-Code's opponents maintain that the bill would give criminals open use of strongly encrypted email without fear of interception by government officials.