President Clinton talked unceasingly during his reelection campaign about building that bridge to the 21st century. Unfortunately, he never said much about his willingness to use it. In fact, it seems necessary to drag him across on some of the most important issues of the Information Age.
For every step the White House takes in the right direction, it stumbles two steps back. For example, the administration has rightly decided that the unprofitable Internet should not be subject to taxes at this point. On the negative side was the president's intransigent and misplaced support of the Communications Decency Act, ostensibly designed to protect children from online smut. That bill, recently rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, really amounted to broad censorship and an assault on free speech.
The Clinton administration maintains a similar, shortsighted obstinacy concerning one of the fastest-growing international markets. That's the trade in powerful computer encryption technology, a means of disguising or coding information so that it can be read only by the intended recipient. More complicated codes are much harder to break, curtailing the threats of commercial espionage, computer break-ins and piracy over the Web. Businesses here and abroad are anxious not only to acquire the best encryption but to have it built right into the computer systems they purchase.
Right now, administration policy restricts American businesses to selling encryption abroad that is only about one-third as tough as what can be sold domestically, so customers turn to foreign competitors.
Clinton is wedded to the notion that selling more complicated systems abroad leaves the nation vulnerable to international terrorist and criminal plans unless the government has access to decoding keys. But terrorists and criminals can still buy the best encryption overseas or even come to the U.S. and buy it here. The only thing the policy hinders is the right of American businesses to grab a larger share of a thriving international market.
Right now, a bill that has overwhelming support in the House of Representatives would bring the nation's encryption policy up to speed. Rep. Bob Goodlatte's (R-Va.) proposed Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act would drop the export restrictions. It has 250 bipartisan co-sponsors, including 38 members of the California congressional delegation. Congress should pass it and Clinton ought to embrace it.
Meanwhile, if the president is concerned about the threat of the computer-literate criminal or terrorist, he should instruct the Justice Department to examine whether laws covering phone wiretaps and search warrants and the like are fully applicable to computer transmissions. It's a good guess that they are and that law enforcement already has the right and means to investigate cyber-criminals and terrorists and decode their communications.