US may relax limits on source code export

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This was just released today. Those of you who are making a point the issue of source code export in your midterm papers needn't worry: we can't expect you to be that up to date in writing about such fast-moving events :)

U.S. may relax export limit on encryption source code
By Aaron Pressman

WASHINGTON, Oct 19 (Reuters) - The Clinton administration is considering relaxing export limits on computer source code for data scrambling programs, in a possible move acknowledging the growing importance of Linux, a top export official said Tuesday.

Undersecretary of Commerce William Reinsch said the administration had originally intended to maintain current export limits on source code, or instructions written by a computer programmer that can be compiled into a computer program.

But after the administration announced it would significantly relax many of its limits on already compiled computer encryption programs, high-tech companies complained that retaining the source code limit was unworkable, Reinsch said in a telephone interview.

"We are now reviewing that," Reinsch said. "It's on the table as area where we might make a revision." Revised encryption export rules will be released by December 15, he said, with any possible changes for source code export likely included at that time.

Encryption, which uses mathematical formulas to scramble information and protect it from prying eyes, is now included in everything from Web browsers and e-mail programs to cable television set-top boxes and handheld computers.

Traditionally, software companies sold finished programs but kept the source code underlying their programs a tightly-guarded secret. Microsoft Corp. , for example, has never published the source code underlying its Windows operating system.

More recently, a movement of "open source" software has gained momentum, including a version of the Unix operating system developed by Linus Torvalds and known as Linux.

Source code of such programs is made freely available to anyone, usually over the Internet.

But the export rules consider posting source code on the Internet, where people in other countries can download it, a form of export. That creates problems for U.S. programmers that want to include encryption features for Linux or other "open source" programs.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in May that the source code export limits were a violation of the First Amendment's free speech guarantee, but the decision is being reviewed by the full appeals court.

Computer science professor Daniel Bernstein filed the lawsuit so he could post an encryption program he had written on the Internet.

A change in the export rules could render the case moot.

Tuesday, 19 October 1999 18:08:14

-- Hal Abelson, October 19, 1999