The US is a hive of Internet activity. The country that brought us the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and 56-bit encryption really hasn't got a clue.
After Clinton introduced the CDA, millions of people were up in arms, protesting at the injustices of a law that restricts freedom of speech and seeks to make criminals out of normal, law-abiding citizens. Then they introduced the encryption laws which puts a stop to all encryption greater than 56-bit. The reason? Well, in true Orwellian style, the state wants to retain some measure of control over what its citizens can send over the Internet.
Thank God for the citizens and, for once, the corporations who have the guts to take on the government. Sun Microsystems, headed by president and CEO Scott McNealy, is known as a bright innovative company that isn't scared to do battle in the software arena, and is now ready to champion the privacy campaign - albeit for its own ends (see adjoining story).
But the investigation into Sun's involvement with software from Russia is a clear signal of a planet shrinking and of laws that simply can't cope with the Internet and its global potential. As long as Sun can prove it was not directly involved in the R&D of the Sun Screen encryption software and can handle distribution of it from countries other than the US, it isn't breaking any laws.
The US government enforced its ban on encryption software because of its fear of terrorists. The theory goes that if a terrorist wants to send information on how to make bombs, or even a simple mail containing terrorist information, it would be forced to protect it with a 56-bit wall - which isn't that difficult to overcome and is certainly within the capabilities of the US authorities.
Jim Bidzos, president and chief executive of RSA Data Security Dynamics, hit the nail on the head with a comment in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal: "The government has to shut this down or else Sun's competitors will do the same thing." Bidzos, not one of Clinton's biggest fans, praised Sun's move as "blatant and in your face". And so it is. But is the commercial appetite of a powerful organisation such as Sun now in a position to dictate government directives?
Privacy advocates will no doubt be delighted with Sun's fighting stance.
Their argument has always been that security is more important than law enforcement and that companies and individuals have the right to absolute protection for their intellectual property. That said, very few actually take notice of US encryption laws which stink of ignorance and naivety.
Phil Zimmermann, the man who invented the Pretty Good Privacy encryption, is blatantly wafting that smell all the way back to the White House.
At a press conference organised by the London School of Economics, Computer Security Research Centre and the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, Zimmermann admitted that he broke US encryption laws when he taught a Latin American civil rights campaigner how to use his software without government permission.
He could have been put behind bars for up to three years. The civil rights campaigner used PGP to hide data of Central American death squads from the government.
With the reputation the US government has for secrecy and sleight of hand, it's no wonder individuals such as Zimmermann protest. As soon as Clinton's administration announced it would use key escrow ("trusted" third-party organisations) to sift through mail and other on-line data, the protests flowed. Zimmermann reckons the key escrow trend could spread to countries such as Iran and Iraq where governments would use the technology to cling on to power.
But Sun's glory days may be short-lived. The US government is terrified of the Internet and is expected to give McNealy's outfit more than a hard time. If it is found to have been involved in the development of Sun Screen, the product will be blocked. If it is found to be legal, the government will be forced to re-examine the way it enforces its intellectual property and it could be blocked anyway.
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