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Lawmakers take up crypto, child safety

Federal lawmakers will debate two undying Net issues--export controls on data security products, and children's access to the Net's seedier side.

Federal lawmakers will debate two undying Net issues today--export controls on data security products, and children's access to the Net's seedier side.

The Senate Commerce Committee this morning is holding a hearing on the Child Internet Protection Act, which would require schools and libraries to filter "harmful" online material based on local standards in order to get federal money for Net connections.

And in the House, the subcommittee on courts and intellectual property will take up Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and Zoe Lofgren (D-California) Security and Freedom Through Encryption (SAFE) Act.

Both efforts mark renewed tries at solving old dilemmas. The House undertaking in fact marks the third revival of SAFE, which protects the right to use encryption domestically and simplifies the governmental review process for exporting strong products. The bill also prohibits mandatory "key-escrow" or "key-recovery" systems, which give law enforcement a spare key to crack encrypted data.

The civil liberties community is closely watching both bills, as most oppose filtering at libraries and federal restrictions on strong data-scrambling technologies.

Net filtering for e-rate recipients?
This morning's hearing is Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) second attempt to tie the "e-rate" to Net filtering.

Witnesses such as Bruce Taylor of the National Law Center for Children and Families will likely promote the bill as necessary to protect young Net users. Gordon Ross, president of Net Nanny, will speak about the effectiveness of blocking software, while Elliot Mineberg, of the People for the American Way is expected to maintain that filtering at public libraries is unconstitutional.

Mineberg's group previously won its lawsuit to strike down the Loudoun County (Virginia) Public Library's policy to install blocking software on every computer with a Net connection in an effort to bar access to sites deemed "harmful to minors." A U.S. District Judge in Virginia said such a plan violates free speech.

Crypto back on the docket
The fight over encryption regulations isn't as sexy as children's "safety" on the Net, but the issue is critical to the U.S. software industry, e-commerce sites, and computer users' personal privacy.

Encryption has been the center of a more than six-year battle between national security officials, who want to tightly monitor distribution of the data security technology, and the high-tech industry and civil liberties advocates, who say global companies and citizens should have unfettered access to the most powerful U.S. products to secure their private digital communication.

The SAFE Act focuses on cutting the red tape for crypto manufacturers, who now have to get licenses before shipping products.

The Clinton administration has already reduced export requirements for some industry sectors--such as banking and e-commerce--after a one-time review by the Commerce Department. The rules essentially allow for the free export of 56-bit encryption, but that standard has been cracked before and privacy groups say the changes don't benefit individuals.

Among those testifying about SAFE before the House subcommittee today are William Reinsch, undersecretary of the Commerce Department's Export Bureau; Barbara McNamara, deputy director of the National Security Agency; Alan Davidson, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology; Ed Gillespie, executive director of the Americans for Computer Privacy; and Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Association.