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Encryption bill unlikely to pass

The Pro-Code encryption bill in the Senate is unlikely to pass this year.

The Pro-Code bill currently working its way through the Senate is gaining supporters and changing opinions about the use of encryption software but is still unlikely to pass this year, said participants in today's Safety and Freedom Through Encryption Forum, which gathered encryption experts, members of Congress, and civil activists before a receptive crowd at the Stanford University Law School to air criticisms of current U.S. encryption export policy.

Pro-Code, which would ease limitations on the export of U.S.-made software encryption, is slated for hearings before the full Senate Commerce Committee later this month. But even though the bill won the endorsement of prominent members of Congress and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, supporters in the legislature say the bill's fate is in doubt because of the upcoming summer recess and distraction of the presidential election.

"Unfortunately, there's just not much time left," said Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), whose district includes parts of San Jose.

But Lofgren, a member of the newly formed Internet Caucus, and Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) say the bill is still serving the purpose of educating legislators and voters about the need for a more liberal encryption policy. The SAFE Forum was designed as a way to kick off an educational campaign that will carry over into the next legislative session when Pro-Code or a similar bill will undoubtedly be reintroduced.

Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, acknowledged there wasn't much chance for the Burns bill to pass this year but nonetheless praised the legislation and its co-sponsor, Senator Conrad Burns, who showed up to moderate one of the morning panels.

"The Burns bill is ready for prime time," Fena said. "It proves that if you give [legislators] the knowledge, then let them apply the knowledge to crafting laws, you'll get good results."

One SAFE speaker after another also took the opportunity to denounce the Clinton a dministration's attempt to impose a "key escrow" system that would allow export of stronger encryption only if users were required to store the keys to their encrypted messages with third-party holding companies so that law enforcement agencies could decrypt messages considered evidence in criminal or national security cases.

"It would be like a federally sponsored video camera in every room of your house, and the government's promise not to turn the cameras on unless you're bad," said Jim Lucire of Americans for Tax Reform, which opposes key escrow as added bureaucracy and greater concentration of federal power.

Observers of last week's Senate subcommittee hearing have said that senior administration officials are expected to testify when the full Senate Commerce Committee holds hearings later this month.

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