- Republican, Missouri.
- Chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on
- Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism
- (Senator Ashcroft takes issue with the Clinton administration
views on the Internet and the use of encryption technology.)
- The Internet provides a great opportunity to our country,
in part by representing the most inviting form of communication ever developed.
It draws people together from all corners of the globe to share and communicate
on an unprecedented level, and brings all branches of government closer
to the public that they serve.
- The Internet allows small businesses to reach out across
the globe and conquer the distances between them and potential customers.
Individuals can view merchandise and make purchases without leaving home.
The Internet also holds great promise for education. Students -- rural,
suburban, and urban -- are increasingly able to access a wealth of information
with their fingertips that was previously beyond their reach.
- In order to guarantee that the United States meets the
challenge of this new means of commerce, communication, and education,
government must be careful not to interfere. We should not harness the
Internet with a confusing array of intrusive regulations and controls.
Yet, the Clinton administration is trying to do just that.
- The Clinton administration would like the Federal government
to have the capability to read any international or domestic computer communications.
The FBI wants access to decode, digest, and discuss financial transactions,
personal e-mail, and proprietary information sent abroad -- all in the
name of national security. To accomplish this, President Clinton would
like government agencies to have the keys for decoding all exported U.S.
software and Internet communications.
- This proposed policy raises obvious concerns about Americans'
privacy, in addition to tampering with the competitive advantage that our
U.S. software companies currently enjoy in the field of encryption technology.
Not only would Big Brother be looming over the shoulders of international
cyber-surfers, but the administration threatens to render our state-of-the-art
computer software engineers obsolete and unemployed.
- There is a concern that the Internet could be used to
commit crimes and that advanced encryption could disguise such activity.
However, we do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our
homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the
Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications
across the Web?
- The protections of the Fourth Amendment are clear. The
right to protection from unlawful searches is an indivisible American value.
Two hundred years of court decisions have stood in defense of this fundamental
right. The state's interest in effective crime-fighting should never vitiate
the citizens' Bill of Rights.
- The president has proposed that American software companies
supply the government with decryption keys to high level encryption programs.
Yet, European software producers are free to produce computer encryption
codes of all levels of security without providing keys to any government
authority. Purchasers of encryption software value security above all else.
These buyers will ultimately choose airtight encryption programs that will
not be American-made programs to which the U.S. government maintains keys.
- In spite of this truism, the president is attempting
to foist his rigid policy on the exceptionally fluid and fast-paced computer
industry. Furthermore, recent developments in decryption technology bring
into question the dynamic of government meddling in this industry. Three
months ago, the 56-bit algorithm government standard encryption code that
protects most U.S. electronic financial transactions from ATM cards to
wire transfers was broken by a low-powered 90 MHZ Pentium processor.
- In 1977, when this code was first approved by the U.S.
government as a standard, it was deemed unbreakable. And for good reason.
There are 72 quadrillion (72,000 trillion) different combinations in a
56-bit code. However, with today's technology these 72 quadrillion combinations
can each be tried in a matter of time.
- Two days after this encryption code was broken, a majority
of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee voted, in accordance with administration
policy, to force American software companies to perpetuate this already
compromised 56-bit encryption system. In spite of the fact that 128-bit
encryption software from European firms is available on Web sites accessible
to every Internet user. Interestingly, European firms can import this super-secure
encryption technology (originally developed by Americans) to the United
States, but U.S. companies are forbidden by law from exporting these same
programs to other countries.
- I believe that moving forward with the president's policy
or the Commerce Committee's bill would be an act of folly, creating a cadre
of government "peeping toms" and causing severe damage to our
vibrant software industries. Government would be caught in a perpetual
game of catch-up with whiz-kid code-breakers and industry advances. Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott has signaled his objection to both proposals.
- The leader and I would like to work to bring solid encryption
legislation to the Senate floor. Any proposal should give U.S. encryption
software manufacturers the freedom to compete on equal footing in the international
marketplace, by providing the industry with a quasi-governmental board
that would decide encryption bit strength based on the level of international
- U.S. companies are on the front line of on-line technologies
-- value-added industries of the future. Consider this: Every eighteen
months, the processing capability of a computer doubles. The speed with
which today's fastest computers calculate will be slug-like before the
next millennium or the next presidential election comes along. The best
policy for encryption technology is one that can rapidly react to breakthroughs
in decoding capability and roll back encryption limits as needed.
- The administration's interest in all e-mail is a wholly
unhealthy precedent, especially given this administration's track record
on FBI files and IRS snooping. Every medium by which people communicate
can be subject to exploitation by those with illegal intentions. Nevertheless,
this is no reason to hand Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries,
open our ATM records, read our medical records, or translate our international
- Additionally, the full potential of the Internet will
never be realized without a system that fairly protects the interests of
those who use the Internet for their businesses, own copyrighted material,
deliver that material via the Internet, or individual users. The implications
here are far-reaching, with impacts that touch individual users, companies,
libraries, universities, teachers, and students.
- In December 1996, two treaties were adopted by the diplomatic
conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to update
international copyright law. These treaties would extend international
copyright law into the digital environment, including the Internet. However,
these treaties do not provide a comprehensive response to the many copyright
issues raised by the flourishing of the Internet and the promise of digital
technology. We must work to keep the scales of copyright law balanced,
providing important protections to creators of content, while ensuring
their widespread distribution. In an attempt to meet these goals, I introduced
the Digital Copyright Clarification and Technology Education Act of 1997.
- Equally important, we must begin a process that is structured
to balance the rights of copyright owners with the needs and technological
limitations of those who enable the distribution of the electronic information,
and with the rights and needs of individual end users. The current treaties
and statements are not sufficient, and include some language that could
create legal uncertainty. This vague language could lead to laws that ignore
technical realities. The language must be clarified through the enactment
of legislation in conjunction with the Senate's ratification of the treaties.
- Another issue that could prevent the Internet from reaching
its potential is taxation. If we tax the Internet prematurely or allow
discriminatory taxing, we may stifle a burgeoning technological development
that holds much commercial, social, and educational promise for all Americans.
Taxation should be considered only after we have fully examined and understood
the impact that unequivocal taxation would have on this new means of commerce.
The Internet Tax Freedom Act would allow for full consideration of the
opportunities and possible abuses by placing a moratorium on further taxation
of online commerce and technologically discriminatory taxes. It is important
to note that S. 442 will allow states and local jurisdictions to continue
to collect any tax already levied on electronic commerce.
- On-line communications technology is akin to the Wild
West of the 19th century. To best settle this new frontier, we should unleash
American know-how and ingenuity. The government's police-state policy on
encryption is creating hindrances and hurdles that will eventually injure
our ability to compete internationally. Government's role should be to
break down barriers, to allow everyone to excel to their highest and best.
- Senator Ashcroft is a member of the Senate Commerce,
Judiciary, and Foreign Relations Committees. His Web homepage is: http://www.senate.gov/~ashcroft/
and his e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Global Issues
- USIA Electronic Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 1997