Court Sides With Bush Administration on Wiretapping Internet Phone Calls

A divided federal appeals court Friday sided with the Bush administration over rules that make it easier for police and the FBI to wiretap Internet phone calls.

In a 2-1 ruling, the court said the Federal Communications Commission was correct when it decided that providers of Internet phone service and broadband services have obligations similar to those of telephone companies.

The FCC was responding to Justice Department complaints that companies must ensure their equipment using new technologies can accommodate police wiretaps under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA.

"We cannot set aside the commission's reasonable interpretation of the act in favor of an alternatively plausible or an even better one," wrote appeals court judge David Sentelle.

Judge Harry Edwards disagreed, saying that CALEA contains an exemption for information services and that the FCC "has altogether gutted" it.

In determining that broadband Internet providers are subject to the law just as telecommunications carriers are, the FCC "apparently forgot to read the words of the statute," Edwards wrote in dissent.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the decision ensures that law enforcement's ability to conduct lawful court-ordered electronic surveillance will keep pace with new technology.

Sentelle is an appointee of President Reagan, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who sided with Sentelle, is an appointee of President George W. Bush. Edwards was appointed by President Carter.