Tales From the Encrypt

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Bill Gates calls it vital to the high-tech economy. Janet Reno thinks it's a threat and should be regulated. Yet another Microsoft attempt at world domination? Nah. This time, it's the always-contentious subject of encryption, and it's been the rage in Washington this week.

On Tuesday, Gates, Netscape's CEO Jim Barksdale and a clutch of high-tech CEOs sat down for a heart-to-heart with Reno and her anticrypto allies to explore a peace accord. How did it go? Yesterday, at a meeting with TIME magazine editors, Barksdale was surprisingly optimistic, saying that the Justice Department, for the first time, appeared to be searching for a workable compromise with the computer industry. Encryption may be the only thing he and Gates agree on. Gates summed it up nicely yesterday, saying at a Business Software Alliance briefing that Congress should allow overseas sales because "encryption technology is widely available outside the United States and inside the United States. That's just a fact of life." But will Reno change her position? A few months ago she said "encryption allows terrorists to communicate about their criminal plans with impunity," and seems to support FBI attempts to ban the stuff outright.

Any fight on Capitol Hill, though, will have to wait until next year, since Congress is too busy to bother with crypto until after the November elections.