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Government limits on the export of computer encryption codes, which scramble data to prevent eavesdropping, are a violation of freedom of expression, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The ruling is a blow to the Clinton administration, which limits exports of the most powerful encryption technology because it fears law enforcement agencies won't be able to read the messages of criminals or terroritst.
But the high-tech industry wants relaxed restrictions so it can take full advantage of the booming market for encryption programs as Internet commerce increases.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower-court ruling, said encryption codes contain expressions of ideas and cannot be suppressed indefinitely by government officials.
"Cryptographers use source code to express their scientific ideas in much the same way that mathematicians use equations or economists use graphs" Judge Betty Fletcher wrote in the 2-1 ruling.An advocacy group for computer privacy applauded the ruling.
"It's a giant step forward in bringing down export controls," said Tara Lemmey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
The decision upheld the 1996 ruling in the case of Daniel Bernstein, an Illinois mathematics professor who wanted to post his encryption formula on the Internet.
Fletcher wrote that Bernstein and other scientist "have been effectivey chilled from engaging in valuable scientific expression." However, a court order preventing Bernstein from posting his code remains in effect, pending government's decision on whether to appeal further.
The ruling declares the regulations invalid in the nation's largest federal appellate circuit, which covers nine Western states.