U.S. May Soften Source-Code Export Policy

A U.S. Department of Commerce official last week said the Clinton administration may reconsider its restriction on exporting source code for programs using strong encryption.

Many commercial software companies don't publish the underlying source code for their programs because they consider it proprietary information. But an increasing number of businesses are using open-source software, such as the Linux operating system, which makes their source code freely available to anyone.

William Reinsch, an undersecretary of Commerce, said vendors and users of open-source programs such as Linux complained about restrictions on source code after the administration announced last month that it would allow the export of compiled programs using strong encryption.

"The Linux issue came up, and we heard from a lot of people about that, and it is causing us to do some additional thinking," said Reinsch.

According to Reinsch, the revised rules scheduled to be released by Dec. 15 would include any revisions to the source code export rules. Current U.S. export restrictions consider posting source code on the Internet a form of export. That hampers U.S. programmers who want to build strong encryption features into Linux or other open-source software.

Paul McNamara, general manager of the enterprise business unit at Durham, N.C.-based Red Hat Software Inc., which can't export its Linux Secure Web Server with 128-bit encryption, said lifting the source-code ban would have a positive impact on both vendors and customers. He noted that Fortune 100 companies have the money to lobby the Commerce Department for export waivers, but small companies don't have that luxury.

"Encryption technology is becoming a critical component of Internet applications and is essential for protecting people's privacy and the security of their data. Our customers outside of North America don't have access to the same type of encryption technology because we can only ship a weaker version, and this puts us at a disadvantage in terms of our competition," said McNamara.

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