• 12/10/2003

Why We Took PEM Out of Apache

On May 17th, 1995, we were asked by a representative of NCSA to remove any copies of NCSA httpd prior to 1.4.1 from our web site. They were mandated by the NSA to inform us that redistribution of pre-1.4.1 code violated the same laws that make distributing Phill Zimmerman’s PGP package to other countries illegal. There was no encryption in NCSA’s httpd, only hooks to publicly available libraries of PEM code. By the NSA’s rules, even hooks to this type of application is illegal.

Because Apache is based on NCSA code, and we had basically not touched that part of the software, we were informed that Apache was also illegal to distribute to foreign countries, and advised (not mandated) by NCSA to remove it. So, we removed both the copies of the NCSA httpd we had, and all versions of Apache previous to 0.6.5.

The Apache members are strong advocates of the right to digital privacy, so the decision to submit to the NSA and remove the code was not an easy one. Here are some elements in our rationale:

  • The PEM code in httpd was not widely used. No major site relied upon its use, so its loss is not a blow to encryption and security on the world wide web. There are other efforts designed to give much more flexible security – SSL and SHTTP – so this wasn’t a function whose absence would really be missed on a functional level.
  • We didn’t feel like being just a couple more martyrs in a fight being fought very well by many other people. Rather than have the machine that supports the project confiscated or relocated to South Africa, etc., we think there are more efficient methods to address the issue.

It kind of sickens us that we had to do it, but so be it.

Patches that re-implement the PEM code may be available at a foreign site soon. If it does show up, we’ll point to it – that can’t be illegal!

Finally, here is a compendium of pointers to sites related to encryption and export law. We can’t promise this list will be up to date, so send us mail when you see a problem or want a link added. Thanks. Brian, brian@hyperreal.com

Apache HTTP Server Version 1.3