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House Grills State Department Over Wassenaar Arrangement

DEEPLINKS BLOG
January 12, 2016

Congressional Representatives grilled the parties responsible for the U.S. implementation of controversial changes to the Wassenaar Arrangement in a joint hearing before subcommittees of the House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees today. Witnesses included officials from the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State, as well as representatives of the tech industry, including Symantec, Microsoft, VMWare, and the Information Technology Industry Council.

Today’s hearing was a response to the overwhelmingly negative reception to the Commerce Department’s proposed implementation of the Wassenaar Arrangement. Not only did civil society organizations, including EFF, voice their concerns about the overbreadth of the proposed language and its potential effects on security research, but the tech industry also rose in opposition. The companies argued—and we agree—that the proposed rules would not only weaken our entire digital infrastructure, but hamper U.S companies’ competitiveness in the global security market.

In addition to calling for this hearing, Representatives McCaul and Langevin sent a letter to Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, urging the administration to greatly narrow the current proposed rule, or risk grave harm to both research and industry.

Members of Congress and witnesses from the tech industry appear to be largely united against the rulemaking. Iain Mulholland, speaking for VMWare said, “Ultimately, the U.S. should return to Wassenaar and renegotiate the 2013 agreement.” Cristin Flynn Goodwin, speaking for Microsoft, suggested that “the administration should suspend any further rulemaking until a new agreement can be reached.” Congressman Mike Kelly (R-PA) put it even more succinctly, “BIS should reconsider the rulemaking.”

Everyone at today’s hearing agreed that the initial proposed rule needs revision. Kevin Wolf, the Assistant Secretary for Export Administration at the Department of Commerce came right out and said that “the next step will not be a final rule.” But exactly what the next step will be remains unclear.

While we were heartened that both the committee members and the industry representatives were in agreement that the U.S. needs to go back and renegotiate the Wassenaar Arrangement's language, we didn’t hear the administration actually commit to doing so. State Department officials at the hearing openly admitted that the first version of the U.S. proposal “missed the mark” and that they were “surprised” by the tech industry’s negative reaction. However, the State Department refrained from making any promises, merely placating Representatives by saying “all options are on the table.”

From EFF’s perspective, there is only one option: the 2013 changes to the Wassenaar Arrangement must be renegotiated. Either rolled back entirely, or at a minimum, greatly narrowed to reduce their negative impact on security research.

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