US House hears testimony on encryption restrictions

US legislators have been hearing testimony from American software publishers and others in the continuing legal battle over exporting software with strong encryption.

US legislators have been hearing testimony from American software publishers and others in the continuing legal battle over exporting software with strong encryption. Currently, the government does not permit the exportation of software encrypted with key lengths greater than 40 bits.

Witnesses testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, DC, included representatives from Lotus and Netscape, according to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a trade group representing mass-market software-makers. The BSA and others are calling for the export of software using 56-bit encryption, the world benchmark, according to the BSA. This measure alone would substantially add to the competitive position of US software makers, according to Diane Smiroldo, vice-president of public affairs at the BSA.

"We will be able to compete on a level playing field with foreign competitors who are already marketing software with stronger than 40-bit encryption," Smiroldo says.

US software companies are the only ones in the world prohibited by their government from selling strongly encrypted products abroad, Smiroldo says. Though US software companies currently have around a 75% share of the global software market, this strong position could slip if the 40-bit encryption limits remains the law, according to Smiroldo.

However, some question that claim. With software, "the basis of competition is marketing, not technology", says Brian Murphy, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. "To a significant degree, marketing prowess is a larger determinant of success than technology prowess."

Nonetheless, witnesses at the committee hearing are pressing their claim, calling for other measures besides the 56-bit encryption, including automatically increasing key lengths by two bits every two years, to keep up with advances in computer power, according to the BSA.

Though the president has the power to lift the export ban, the BSA and others are asking Congress to consider making changes to the law.

"As of this point, we don't see a lot of progress from the Clinton administration, so we've gone to Congress for relief," Smiroldo says.

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