5 March 1998
Thanks to Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet: http://www.liberty.org.uk/cacib
The Economist online, March 7-13, 1998
GOVERNMENTS are schizophrenic about the Internet. Most are genuinely excited by its phenomenal growth and the opportunities it offers both to business and education. They also sense that any country attempting to hold it back risks looking foolish and technophobic. On the other hand, they find the Internets libertarian culture and contempt for national borders subversive and frankly terrifying. Although much of the popular demand for Internet regulation comes from the ease with which it allows the distribution of pernicious content, a much more important debate about the future of the wired world is hotting up.
The argument is about the seemingly arcane subject of cryptography. The dilemma for governments is whether to put the demands of crime-fighting before those of protecting the privacy of businesses and individuals. In the United States this week, a coalition of computer-industry heavyweights, civil-liberty gadflies, politicians from both main parties and some of Washingtons toughest lobbyists announced the formation of Americans for Computer Privacy. The intention of this new alliance is to make the fight against the administrations policy on cryptography a populist issue and to derail potentially threatening legislation. In Britain too, campaigners fear that Labour in office plans to reverse the liberal approach to encryption it advocated in opposition.
America already imposes controls over the export of encryption technology. These have almost certainly hurt American software firms more than the wicked foreigners they are aimed at. Some legislators, supported by the White House, now want to go further. Two bills before Congress, backed by the FBI and the National Security Agency, would bar the distribution of any so-called "hard" encryption software unless code-breaking keys were first given to law-enforcement agencies. Powerful and widely available encryption software, the law-and-order lobby argues, lets criminals and terrorists communicate over the Internet with complete security. Without the ability to tap into their files, heinous crimes will go undetected. Rather than having the right to snoop indiscriminately, it is suggested, keys could be held in escrow by "trusted third parties" and only made available by court order.
Reasonable though this sounds, the results would be almost wholly malign. Confidence in encryption is essential for both Internet commerce and the protection of individual privacy. If businesses believe that confidential documents sent over the Internet can be hacked into, they wont send them. If credit-card transactions can be easily intercepted, goods will not be purchased. If e-mails that individuals wish to keep private can be electronically steamed open, they will stay unwritten. Powerful encryption is, in fact, an essential protection for the law-abiding. Who would be confident that keys would not get into the wrong hands, that trusted third parties could be trusted or that law-enforcement agencies would not abuse their new powers as they have done old ones, such as phone-tapping?
It is easy to see why some governments are yielding to pressure from their police forces. Keen though politicians are to be seen encouraging the Internet, they are even keener not to be tagged "soft on crime". They should reflect on two points. First, whatever they do, though harmful to the law-abiding, will be countered anyway by well-resourced criminals -- the encryption genie is out of the bottle. Second, the list of countries where strong domestic controls on cryptography are already in place is Belarus, China, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and Singapore. Is that a club they really want to join?