By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The computer industry is pushing to relax regulations limiting export of the technology, which scrambles data to prevent eavesdropping. Because other nations do not have such restrictions, U.S. software firms are worried about losing out on business to foreign competitors.
But the U.S. government, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is concerned that loose export rules could put encryption technology in the wrong hands, making it tougher to chase terrorists, drug smugglers and other criminals.
Although the battle has been percolating for the past few years, with several pieces of legislation introduced in Congress, the tech industry hasn't had much success. Now, a coalition of 90 companies called Americans for Computer Privacy thinks its best chances rest in making encryption a consumer issue.
The District-based coalition -- which includes Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Intel Corp. -- is spending $1 million on print ads and television spots to air over the next two weeks on Washington stations, as well as CNN and CNBC. But unlike other issue-oriented advertising campaigns here -- such as "open skies" and telephone deregulation -- the effort aims to engage not only policymakers.
The spot begins with the couple sitting in the living room, as he works on the computer and she reads the newspaper. "Hon, do we have encryption software on our computer?" she asks him.
"Yeah," says the husband. "That makes it safe to do our bills on here. Encryption locks our private information."
The wife responds that, according to the newspaper, "Washington wants our key." The worried husband says that encryption is central to the privacy of "computers, e-mail, data files . . . medical records and credit reports."
The spot concludes with the wife asking rhetorically, "Should we trust Washington bureaucrats with the key to our private lives?"
The actors aren't the original Harry and Louise, nor do they refer to each other by those names, but the parallels are unmistakable. The ads were produced by Goddard-Claussen, a Malibu, Calif., firm that created the original health care spots in 1993.
"The challenge is to bring this issue home." said Ed Gillespie, ACP's executive director and former communications director for the Republican National Committee. "We want to make sure policymakers and consumers understand the importance of encryption and how it matters to them in their everyday lives."
ACP hopes the ads will spur Congress to pass legislation that would loosen the export restriction. A House bill, called the SAFE act, has passed five committees and has drawn 250 co-sponsors, but it is bottled up in the Rules Committee because Chairman Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) opposes it. In the Senate, the legislation has yet to be heard by key committees.
The odds of getting the legislation moved through both houses in an election year are poor, and some key Republicans say they are worried about potential effects on law enforcement. But Gillespie said his group wants to capitalize on recent statements made by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) expressing their support for a vote.
The ads, however, are being viewed skeptically by administration officials. "They're wasting their money," said William A. Reinsch, the Commerce Department's undersecretary for export administration. "People are for privacy and electronic commerce, but they're also for national security and law enforcement."