The laws, the president said, "would essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services." Obama told Reuters he had directly raised his concerns with Chinese President Xi Jinping. "We have made it very clear to them that this is something they are going to have to change if they are to do business with the United States."
The debate over foreign access to secure online communications mirrors a standoff happening in the United States. The White House did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the president's comments. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told The Washington Post that the government's concerns were more about intellectual property rights and trade concerns than protecting communications.
“The rules aren’t about security -- they are about protectionism and favoring Chinese companies," Froman said in a statement. "The Administration is aggressively working to have China walk back from these troubling regulations."
Technology companies have worked to expand their deployment of encryption, the security feature that protects much of the world's online communications, since the revelations about the breadth of National Security Agency spying from Edward Snowden.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials have raised concerns that some of those moves may harm the government's ability to track down crime and terrorism as it increasingly moves online -- particularly plans from Apple and Google to encrypt mobile devices using their operating systems by default, potentially putting content stored on the devices outside of law enforcement's reach even if a legitimate warrant is obtained.
Obama said he supports "strong encryption," but understands law enforcement desires to access data during a recent trip to Silicon Valley. But cryptography experts say lawful intercept capabilities, such as those promoted by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and FBI Director James B. Comey, would necessarily weaken security features by introducing layers of complexity into the code and creating new targets for hackers to attack.
Tech industry figures have also raised concerns that if they build in back doors for the United States, other countries will demand access as the Chinese proposal does. Yahoo Chief Information Security Officer said as much directly to NSA Director Mike Rogers during a heated exchange at a New America cybersecurity conference last month.
"If we’re going to build defects/back doors or golden master keys for the U.S. government, do you believe we should do so -- we have about 1.3 billion users around the world -- should we do so for the Chinese government, the Russian government, the Saudi Arabian government, the Israeli government, the French government?" Stamos asked.
Rogers declined to directly respond to the question, instead saying that a legal framework is needed for law enforcement access and responding to further inquiries by repeating, "I think we can work our way through this."
But many don't think there is a way to work through the conflict without compromising the security of online communications. "No credible expert outside the government seems to think a strong encryption system with back doors is viable," Alan Davidson, a vice president at New America and the director of the think tank's Open Technology Institute, said at the time of the exchange. "And you still have the legal issue of what you create that back door for the U.S. government, what other governments are you going to give it to?"
Major technology companies operate internationally, meaning they might be subject to conflicting policies and legal demands from other nations. Yahoo itself has struggled with this issue in the past: In 2007, the company settled a lawsuit with the families of dissidents alleged to have been imprisoned after the company turned over data about them to the Chinese government.
The president was right to come out against the Chinese proposal, said Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow James A. Lewis. "It's an insane request." But U.S. law enforcement officials' requests for backdoor access seem unlikely to succeed because of their potential to damage the U.S. companies, he said.
"Nobody wants to buy a product that has a back door in it," Lewis explained. And weakening security features could leave companies more vulnerable to snooping by foreign competitors, he said. "U.S. companies benefit from being able to use strong encryption -- we're the ones who lose the most from economic cyberespionage.