Netscape Communications Corp., developer of the popular Navigator software for Internet access, said the U.S. Department of Commerce has approved its plan to export software with strong data encryption.

Netscape, along with other high-tech marketers, had chafed under the long-standing limit on the length of exported encryption keys to 40 computer bits. Netscape said with the federal approval, it will begin exporting 56-bit products in the next few months.

While the export authority pertains mainly to electronic mail applications and complies with the key-recovery provisions that can give government agencies access to the secret decoding keys, Netscape is pushing for higher security in server technologies that it says will benefit international banks.

In the second phase of its plan, financial institutions could employ 128-bit encryption in their networks and any multinational organization could create a secure, global intranet. Netscape also hopes eventually to be able to export 128-bit client software. Netscape chief scientist Taher Elgamal said the 56-bit authority "is an important milestone for increasing security on global networks."

But legal counsel and encryption-reform advocate Peter Harter said, "The fact remains that the U.S. government's export control rules are causing serious difficulties for U.S. corporations selling security-enabled software products abroad."

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