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A Year Ago: Netscape announcement - Giant Lizard eats San Francisco

First published: Tue, 31 Mar 1998 16:11:38 GMT
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

Today's the day Netscape Communications releases the source code for its Communicator suite, an event being celebrated in some style on the Mozillasite. That site has been set up by Netscape to serve as a co-ordinating point for developers who are being given free licences to use and modify the code providing they post any useful results back for the rest of the community.

Not all of Communicator is being made available however. Most notably, the cryptographic features are missing -- in part because that portion of the source contains code licenced from RSA Data Security and cannot be distributed freely, due to the US Government's ban on encryption exports. This ban states that encryption systems have the same legal status as munitions and must be licenced for export and while Clinton's administration allows the free export of runnable programs with short, easily broken key lengths, it does not permit the source code to be distributed. This is because it is trivial to increase key length if you have the source, but much more difficult to do so if you've only got an executable program.

However, a program that alters or patches the Netscape executables to add strong encryption has been available for five months. Fortify, from Australian programmer Farrell McKay, takes the exportable versions of Netscape Communicator or Navigator and enables their ability to have 128-bit keys. Because Fortify contains no cryptographic functions itself there is no restriction on its distribution. Now, McKay and eight other online cryptographic specialists, have formed the Mozilla Crypto Group, with the express intention of producing new source code to replace that omitted from Netscape's official distribution. The group already has access to high-quality source code, since several of its members have been involved in producing SSLEay, the most popular library of Internet cryptographic services.

The result should be a fully-functional, cross-platform browser with very strong encryption that can be distributed internationally. As the group's FAQ states: "No one involved in the effort are [sic] USA citizens or resident in the USA. What this group is about is gluing together SSLeay and the Mozilla code bases in a way that assists in making Mozilla a fully functional browser". It remains to be seen whether Netscape will distribute the results via Mozilla.org; in theory, the company will not be allowed to do so, even though the code will be freely obtainable from non-US sites. In practice, Netscape says it will 'wait and see'.

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