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US wants wiretap ability on Internet calls expanded

By Jeremy Pelofsky / Reuters
November 15, 2005

WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (Reuters) - U.S. law enforcement authorities want expanded ability to tap any phone call between an Internet phone and a traditional phone if needed for an investigation, according to documents filed this week.

The U.S. Justice Department urged communications regulators to require Internet phone companies to provide the ability to conduct surveillance on services that offer only outgoing calls or incoming calls to or from the traditional phone network.

With the growth of high-speed Internet services, several companies like privately-held Vonage Holdings Corp. and Skype, which eBay Inc. (EBAY.O: Quote, Profile, Research) recently bought, are now offering low-priced Internet telephone service as an alternative.

There are approximately 3.6 million U.S. customers who have signed up for two-way Internet phone service, known as Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, according to a new survey by TeleGeography Research.

The group projects 4.4 million U.S. subscribers by the end of the year and close to 20 million by 2010. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) passed by Congress in 1994 was aimed at preserving the ability of authorities to conduct court-ordered wiretaps as technology advanced.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission in August ruled that companies like Vonage must offer law enforcement authorities the ability to conduct surveillance on Internet phone services that can both make and receive calls to and from the traditional phone network.

However, Skype offers independent one-way services, SkypeOut which permits outbound calls that can connect to the traditional phone network, and SkypeIn which receives calls from the phone network and gives the customer a phone number.


Without referring to Skype, the Justice Department asked that CALEA be extended to services that "enable customers to place calls to or receive calls from the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)."

The agency filed comments on Monday with the FCC, which is weighing how to apply the law to new communications services.

Skype argued against applying the surveillance law beyond two-way Internet phone services, noting that the FCC decision was aimed at those that replace traditional phone service.

"Many software-based VOIP products are used not to replace traditional telephony, but as a component of electronic messaging and other information services, which Congress clearly indicated was not covered by CALEA," Skype said.

The FCC decision in August also extended the surveillance law to broadband Internet access, a move that raised concerns by educational institutions like Cornell University which said the agency overstepped its bounds.

"If Cornell is not providing services for hire, it should be exempt from CALEA," the university said in comments to the FCC filed on Friday. "Congress expressly excluded 'private networks' from CALEA's reach."

The FCC said in its order that private networks would not be subject to the wiretap requirements but those that are connected with a public network would have to comply with the law.