A new federal regulation making it easier for law enforcement to tap Internet phone calls is being challenged in court.
Privacy and technology groups asked the federal appeals court in Washington on Tuesday to overturn a Federal Communications Commission rule that expands wiretapping laws to cover Internet calls — or Voice over Internet Protocol (search) (VoIP).
Law enforcement agencies already can obtain a subpoena for the contents of VoIP calls from Internet access providers. But the FBI and others want the ability to capture the technology live and they want systems designed so it would be easy to do that.
"The whole process of innovation on the Internet would be seriously damaged," said John Morris, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology (search).
To meet the rule's requirements, Internet call providers would have to rewire networks at great cost, Morris said. In addition, there is fear the rule would stifle development of new technologies by placing more regulatory burdens on innovators.
Justice Department spokesman Paul Bresson (search) says court-authorized electronic surveillance is a critical law enforcement tool. "As communications technologies develop, we must ensure that such progress does not come at the expense of our nation's safety and security," he said.
The FCC declined comment on the legal challenge.
The Center for Democracy and Technology was joined in its court petition by several groups, including CompTel, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Separately, the American Council on Education, which represents about 2,000 colleges and universities, filed an appeal of the rule on Monday in federal court in Washington.
The rule, approved by the FCC in August, requires that providers of Internet phone calls and broadband services ensure their equipment can allow police wiretaps.
The rule applies to VoIP providers such as Vonage that use a central telephone company to complete Internet calls. It also applies to cable and phone companies that provide broadband services. The companies must comply by May 2007.
The education group said schools are willing to cooperate with the FBI, but that there are other ways to assist law enforcement rather than rewiring networks.
"We fear that the FCC order will make every college and university replace every router and every switch in their systems," said council senior vice president Terry Hartle. "The cost of doing that is substantial."
For example, he said, the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently rewired its network as part of its regular upgrade of computer systems. The cost, he said, was $18 million.