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Odd coalition rallies for encryption bill

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A bizarre coalition has sprung up around a pro-encryption bill now in the House. It consists of such diverse groups at the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association and the Eagle Forum, a conservative Christian group.

Think of this as a kind of “Halloween Crypto Coalition.” It was The Wall Street Journal that first used the term, to describe the anti-NAFTA coalition of Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.

Just how bizarre is this new coalition? Here’s Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum, talking like a cypherpunk about the White House-FBI backed encryption bill in the Senate: “The right of the individual to privacy would be meaningless” if a White House-backed, pro-encryption bill is passed.

The bill this crypto coalition supports the Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act, also known as SAFE. It’s the brainchild of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who has led a long fight in the House to gain the support of his colleagues for an arcane issue that carries little upside political currency and all the downside of making supporters look soft on crime.

At least that’s the spin the FBI and White House would like to put on supporters of Goodlatte’s bill.


The FBI and White House have lined up behind a Senate crypto bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. This bill, known as the Secure Public Networks Act, was devised by the FBI and endorses the implementation of a so-called “key recovery” process for all coded messages. The process requires that anytime anyone scrambles information, a separate decoding key be placed with a government approved and licensed “trusted third party.” Any law enforcement agency — even police from a foreign country — would be allowed to gain access to these stored decoding keys if they could convince a judge the need is great enough.

In addition, the bill would prohibit the export of encryption products with no keys, putting U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage in the world market.

Supporters of the Senate bill claim it doesn’t mandate the use of keys. However, the bill is worded so that anyone who wants to conduct business with the government or to participate in electronic commerce would have no choice but to use encryption products with keys.

This is the White House’s and FBI’s twisted definition of “voluntary.”

Goodlatte’s bill stands diametrically opposed to the Senate bill. So when the SAFE bill was passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee, it was seen as a huge defeat for pro-encryption advocates. The situation looked bleak. Pro-crypto supporters said privately that the only thing left to do was simply to try to keep the Senate bill from passing.

But the tide has begun to turn on the crypto issue. During a news conference Tuesday, Goodlatte announced that a majority of House members have signed onto SAFE as co-sponsors.


Some 250 members of the House — 158 Republicans and 92 Democrats — are supporting SAFE. That includes a majority of the GOP leadership and the entire Democratic leadership. One notable holdout: House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Gingrich is key because without his support, the bill will never come to the floor for a vote.

During the news conference, Goodlatte said Gingrich has “privately been very helpful” and that he “basically understands” the importance of SAFE. Goodlatte said he’s confident that the bill will come to a vote in the fall.

All this is shaping up as a good, old summer congressional showdown. If SAFE passes the House and the Senate bill also passes, the proposals will come together before a committee that will try to meld them.

Fat chance. If these two bills come together as they stand, it would be impossible to work out a compromise, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, R-Calif., a co-sponsor of SAFE.

Goodlatte went so far as to say that he believes McCain, Kerrey and the White House all can be persuaded to change their position. Goodlatte may have an ace up his sleeve; Senate sources tell me that Majority Leader Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., supports Goodlatte’s approach and privately has given his assurances to try to work McCain to rework his bill.

But talk is cheap. We’ll see what happens in September when Congress comes back from its August recess.


Civil libertarians and supporters of SAFE, though encouraged by the growing support in the House, aren’t doing a victory dance. Instead they’ve launched a campaign to solicit the help of Netizens everywhere to help educate Congress.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, the Voters Telecommunication Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Wired Magazine, among others, have joined to sponsor Meet Your Member Month. It’s aimed at taking advantage of the coming August recess, when members of Congress leave the sweltering heat of Washington and head back to their districts to hold town hall meetings and press the flesh with those who elected them.

The Meet Your Member campaign is encouraging people to get to these town hall meetings and help educate their representatives on the importance of pro-encryption legislation. “We’re engaged in a door-to-door, member-to-member campaign” to help educate Congress, said Jerry Berman, executive director of Center for Democracy and Technology.

The campaign has set up a web site where you can type in your zip code and get the local phone number of your representative to find out when the town hall meeting will be held in your area.


Privately, I’m told that the strategy behind this big education effort isn’t intended to make SAFE law; it’s to ensure that there are enough clued-in legislators so that if and when the two opposing bills actually make it to a conference committee, wide-eyed House members don’t get rolled by senators.

No one knows beforehand which lawmakers will be selected to be on a conference committee.

“We need to get as many House members up to speed on this issue as possible. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves in the same situation as happened with the Communications Decency Act,” a civil liberties group executive told me.

The conference committee that eventually coughed up the Communications Decency Act was entirely controlled by supporters of that bill, which would have relied on technological controls to shield kids from objectionable material on the Internet. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that it was unconstitutional.

House members who had overwhelmingly supported the bill found themselves threatened with being labeled “pro-pornography” right before an election. So they rolled over and accepted the CDA.

Let’s hope the cyberspace community has learned its lesson and is sufficiently motivated to work to educate House members this time around. Otherwise, the Halloween Crypto Coalition will be nothing more but an amusing footnote to yet another embarrassing defeat at the hands of an Internet-clueless administration, carrying the water for an equally clueless FBI.

Meeks out ...