U.S. Defends New Internet Wiretap Rules in Appeals Court
The Bush administration is defending new federal rules making it easier for
police and the FBI to wiretap Internet phone calls.
A broad group of civil liberties and education groups -- and a leading technology
company-- say the U.S. has improperly applied telephone-era rules to a new generation
of Internet services.
Lawyers were expected to square off Friday over the Federal Communications
Commission regulations before a three-judge panel for the U.S. Circuit Court
for the District of Columbia. In an unrelated case last year affecting digital
television, two of the same three judges ruled that the FCC had significantly
exceeded its authority and threw out new FCC rules requiring anti-piracy technologies.
In the current case, the FCC determined that providers of Internet phone service
and broadband services must ensure their equipment can accommodate police wiretaps
under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA.
The new rules go into effect in May 2007.
The 1994 law was originally aimed at ensuring court-ordered wiretaps could
be placed on wireless phones.
The Justice Department, which has lobbied aggressively on the subject, warned
in court papers that failure to expand the wiretap requirements to the fast-growing
Internet phone industry "could effectively provide a surveillance safe
haven for criminals and terrorists who make use of new communications services."
Critics said the new FCC rules are too broad and inconsistent with the intent
of Congress when it passed the 1994 law, which excluded categories of companies
described as information services.
"Our significant concern is that if the FCC is essentially permitted to
override the congressional exclusion, there are no limits," said John B.
Morris, a lawyer for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology,
one of the civil liberties groups fighting the FCC's rules.
The case was expected to be decided by U.S. Circuit Judges Janice Rogers Brown,
David B. Sentelle and Harry T. Edwards.
In the 2005 ruling against the FCC -- the most recent major case involving
the FCC before the circuit court -- Sentelle famously told government lawyers
that their new anti-piracy rules exceeded the authority Congress gave the agency.
"You can't rule the world," Sentelle told them.
Edwards, another appeals judge in the current case, also came down hard on
the FCC in 2005, saying it had "crossed the line" and "gone too