25 February 1999
(House passage likely but further obstacles remain) (590) By Bruce Odessey USIA Staff Writer Washington -- Sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives of legislation to relax U.S. export controls on mass-market encryption software seem optimistic they can pass it despite many obstacles, including likely continued opposition from the Clinton administration. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican sponsor of a nearly identical bill in the previous session of Congress, said at a February 25 briefing that his reintroduced bill already has 205 cosponsors -- 114 Republicans and 91 Democrats -- nearly half the 435-member House. The issue has split both Congress and the Clinton administration, with business and privacy interests on one side and law enforcement and national security interests on the other. In the House the sponsors have lined up support among most of the Republican and Democratic leaders although new Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has not taken a stand. Goodlatte said the bill should get quick approval in the two House committees with original jurisdiction, Judiciary and International Affairs. He said, however, he expects opponents of the bill in the Intelligence and National Security committees to approve rival legislation for tightening export controls on encryption. In the previous Congress the Republican chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, a strong opponent of the Goodlatte bill, blocked it from getting to the House floor. He has retired, however, and his successor, Representative David Dreier, strongly supports the bill. In 1997 and 1998 the Clinton administration opposed the Goodlatte bill. While the bill was tied up in Congress, the administration announced in September a policy relaxing controls somewhat on encryption exports. It raised the general level of software subject to control from 40 to 56 bits in strength; it raised the level even higher for certain industries like finance and medicine and for foreign subsidiaries of U.S. businesses. As before, it imposed no controls on domestic U.S. sales. Then in December the administration negotiated an agreement in the Wassenaar Arrangement, an informal group of 33 countries, that set a multilateral export-control threshold at 64 bits for mass market encryption software. While members of Congress and industry representatives praised the administration's September policy as a positive step, they deemed it as insufficient. The Goodlatte bill would give the U.S. Department of Commerce 15 days to review new mass-market encryption products. If the review determines either that exporting the software would pose no substantial security threat or that such a product was already widely available on the world market from non-U.S. suppliers, then the U.S. supplier could export his product without a special Commerce license. Because the industry production standard is already 128 bits, the bill would almost certainly violate the agreement in the Wassenaar Arrangement. At the briefing Goodlatte and cosponsor Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, criticized the Wassenaar agreement and argued it was not binding on the United States anyway. According to the industry, persons in a number of Wassenaar member countries continue to make 128-bit encryption software available for downloading from the Internet. "It is time for the government to recognize that superior encryption products are already widely available and being sold by overseas competitors," Lofgren said, "and that the current controls only hurt American industry without furthering law enforcement and national security goals." A Commerce Department spokesman had no immediate comment on the comments made at the briefing.