French president Jacques Chirac is refusing to allow private companies in France to use high-end encryption technology. How short-sighted.
Chirac met Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in Paris last week. Emerging from a meeting that lasted over an hour, Gates voiced his annoyance at the French president's intransigence. "We had one problem with the US government; now we have a second one with France," said Gates. "We should be able to use strong encryption in France."
Chirac seems to be employing the same arguments used by the Clinton administration in the US: national security. The fear is that international terrorists, organised criminals, drugs barons and the like will be able to use strong encryption codes to protect their dodgy dealings from investigation by the state.
Clinton tried to refuse US companies licences to export encryption technology over 40-bits - the limit at which US government agencies can crack the code. Faced by energetic lobbying by the US computer industry, he was finally forced to back down in October last year and agree to allow the export of 56-bit technologies. Even this concession was only gained at a price: companies exporting 56-bit encryption must leave a copy of the code key with the US government.
France's reluctance to allow strong encryption to be used freely is absurd.
It can only hold back French participation in the Internet market. For instance, applications such as electronic commerce and banking on the Net will only work if users can be assured of their security. And the only way to do that is to allow them to use the strongest, least crackable encryption available.
It's hard not to think of this as just another example of French arrogance.
Just like when they started letting off nuclear bombs in other people's space. That was macho posturing taken to a dangerous degree. Saying, "We are French, we are a world power, look what we can do".
Chirac's stance on encryption is also macho posturing. "We are a great power - we can't afford to let our national security be compromised." Rubbish. What have the French got that needs such strong protection? Madame Chirac's recipe for onion soup?
It's chauvinism too - like the French law that stops foreign words being used. And Chirac's attitude also relates to France's pernicious and outdated tradition of bureaucracy and centralisation. Trying to keep control of all aspects of people's lives. Trying not to give them too much power - like the power of conducting transactions on the Internet, free from government interference.
But the Net is all about freedom and democracy and breaking down national boundaries. Which is exactly what puts the wind up Chirac.
Ultimately, the only people who are going to lose out are the French themselves. They risk being left behind other countries in Net usage, and the growth of Internet commerce.
Are we likely to have a similar problem in the UK? Is John Major, or any future prime minister, going to adopt a French position?
At the moment, the UK government is saying only that it is considering the options. But given the UK's habit of slavishly following US leads, it's unlikely the government would take a strong stand against adopting encryption laws the US already has. And given our politicians' often-stated enthusiasm for all things technological, it would be difficult for them to bring in any measure likely to stifle technology growth.
What the French can't stand is the loss of control involved in allowing the free, secure exchange of information over the Internet. What they don't seem to understand is that the control is lost already, lost because of the very existence of the Internet.
Also, what's a USB stick?
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