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Federal appeals court skeptical of FCC Internet wiretap rules during hearing

[JURIST] US Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards on Friday criticized new Bush administration rules that make it easier for law enforcement officials to wiretap Internet phone calls during arguments in front of the federal appeals court in Washington, DC. The Federal Communications Commission [official website] created the new rules [FCC press release, PDF] last year, which mandate standards to allow wiretaps of Internet phone calls, prompting immediate objections from Internet phone providers because the rules would require them to rewire their networks at high costs. The new rules are scheduled to take effect in May 2007. Edwards was particularly skeptical of the FCC's decision to require Internet phone service providers to ensure that their equipment can accommodate police wiretaps under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) [text; FCC materials]. In response to the government's argument that Internet phone service could provide a "surveillance safe haven" and that Congress intended to include high speed Internet services because they are functionally equivalent to traditional telephones when it passed CALEA, Edwards told FCC lawyer Jacob Lewis that the FCC argument "makes no sense" and later called the government's courtroom arguments "gobbledygook." The court seemed to support the government's argument for Internet phone services because they are so similar to traditional telephones, but seemed to disagree with including high speed Internet access in CALEA. The FCC voted [JURIST report] on Wednesday to require [press release, PDF] Internet phone service providers to cover the cost of providing mandatory wiretap access to law enforcement.

Edwards' sharp criticism of the FCC encouraged the privacy and education groups that petitioned [JURIST report] the court, including the Center for Democracy and Technology [advocacy website] and the American Council on Education [association website]. In an unrelated case last year concerning digital television, two of the same three judges threw out [opinion text, PDF] new government rules requiring anti-piracy devices; Lewis represented the FCC in that case as well. AP has more.

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