outbreak of harmony
Newswire / 03 June 1999
by Joanne Wallen and Dan Sabbagh of Computing.
An international political consensus on ecommerce is emerging.
And after UK government attempts to impose strict control
of encryptiontechnology, it is surprisingly liberal.
Last week, at a briefing at 10 Downing Street,
the government finally abandoned its three-year-old plans
to introduce key escrow, a complex mechanism for interception
of encrypted communications.
Meanwhile, in Dublin at the International
Commerce Exchange (ICX), global encryption and security experts,
governments and businesses backed the new consensus, saying
ecommerce needed the lightest regulation.
Even a year ago, that would have been unthinkable.
'I have never seen so much convergence of ideas and such a
will to work together before,' said Hubertus Soquat, an official
at the German Ministry of Economics and Technology. Irish,
Canadian and UK government officials called for co-operation
between states over encryption and regulation to build consumer
Key escrow, touted by the UK government
as a part of its proposed ecommerce bill, was intended to
balance the interests of those who wanted minimal regulation
so that the market could take off, and law enforcement, which
wanted to tap into encrypted communications to combat cyber
It required users to deposit copies of their
keys, the only legal way to unlock escrow encryption code,
with trusted third parties.
But key escrow would have imposed substantial
costs on business and, in the borderless world of the Internet,
was unenforceable unless adopted by every country.
Following years of opposition to escrow
by businesses including high ,street banks, the Post Office,
BT and Microsoft, the UK now lags behind other countries in
the race to build an infrastructure that attracts Internet
businesses and ecommerce.
Even UK civil servants, for so long advocates
of escrow, acknowledge that crucial time has been lost. Department
of Trade and Industry official Nigel Hickson, speaking at
ICX, said the Canadian government was way ahead of the UK,
with Ireland in second place.
Ecommerce pits national governments against
each other in a race to ,attract business and boost economies.
Jim Ladouceur, head of cryptography policy
for the Canadian government's ,Ecommerce Strategy Group, puts
it simply: 'Speed wins'. Canada realised last October that
there was no neat way to balance the ,desires of the law enforcement
community with those of a growing ecommerce industry. But
the Canadian government decided it couldn't just sit around
and wait for an answer while the ecommerce revolution took
'We had to take some positive actions to
promote ecommerce, while continuing to work on the issues,'
said Ladouceur. The Canadian government rejected key escrow
and a consensus was reached. It gave organisations freedom
to use whatever strength cryptography they liked and granted
export licences for all cryptography up to and including 128-bit
The Irish government also publicly rejected
escrow at ICX, ahead of its own proposed ecommerce bill. Niall
O'Donnchu, an official at the department of public enterprise,
said the government wanted to promote an 'open, transparent,
enterprise-friendly policy on electronic commerce'.
O'Donnchu, Ladouceur and Hickson called
for international co-operation to produce similar policies.
Three years ago this would have meant bowing to an agenda
heavily influenced by the US signal intelligence agency, the
,National Security Agency, which has repeatedly tried to restrict
the global availability of encryption.
Now it means agreeing on issues such as
key escrow and establishing a legal framework for digital
signatures and electronic contracts.
The Irish government proposes that electronic
signatures should be admissible as evidence in a court of
law, giving them parity with paper documents signed by hand
and adding credibility to ecommerce transactions.
The UK has virtually identical goals. Hickson
said the government would impose full regulation only if 'something
went horribly wrong'.
The growing international harmony was welcomed
by multinationals at ICX. Chris White, Shell International
licensing attorney, said: 'The encouraging thing is the level
of cooperation we are seeing between governments.'
Shell operates in 150 countries and White
added: 'We don't want 150, different regulatory rules. We
would prefer one global rule.