Human Rights

The Government Wants to Tap Your Internet Calls

First it was land lines, then it was cell phones. Now it's Internet calls. When will the assault on our privacy and First Amendment rights end?
Over the past several months, the FCC and Justice Department have been working overtime, and fighting hard to tap not only your land line phone and cell phone, but to tap Internet calls, as well.

Effective in May, those who provide "voice transmission" and broadband services will have to ensure that their equipment that is wiretap-ready, and accessible to your local police force and the FBI. The new legislation is modeled after the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement, or CALEA, which was designed primarily to facilitate wiretapping of mobile phones. This new legislation is intended to expand governmental surveillance powers to cover companies like Vonage, so the progression evolves thus: First we can tap Ma Bell, then Cingular Wireless, then Yahoo emails, then Vonage.

The rules set to go into effect in a couple of months were challenged by a U.S. appeals panel back in July, and U.S. District Judge Harry T. Edwards called courtroom arguments made by the FCC "goobledygook." He was, in my opinion, being kind. Civil liberties groups have expressed outrage over the FCC expansionism, claiming that this legislation doesn't take into account the fundamental difference between the telephone, a vehicle for conversation, and the Internet, a tool by which information is acquired and conveyed. Lawyers for the government argued only that the 1994 legislation intended to be applied to future technology; the Judge wasn't buying that, and neither should we.

Moreover, sophistic claims by the Justice Department that not increasing wiretapping capability to encompass the rapidly proliferating Internet phone industry will transform the Web into a refuge for "criminals and terrorists" are not only hackneyed, they're transparent enough for a 6-year-old to see through.

Alarmingly, with all the discourse about theoretical differences between online, and real time telephonics, what seems to have been lost in arguments for and against the FCC's new rules to require ISPs to ensure that their equipment can be hacked by law enforcement is that this is yet another pernicious step on the part of this administration to use technology that is so advanced that it can sidestep FISA and cut right to the chase -- the chase, of course being, access to your personal conversations and mine.

Those judges on the panel who attempted to justify court-ordered wiretaps of Voice Over Internet Protocols, like Vonage, using the flawed logic that they are essentially no different from traditional telephones are myopic in their inability to acknowledge inevitable future technological inroads, and the potential threat to the First Amendment that inheres in laying the groundwork for this kind of Internet eavesdropping by the government on unsuspecting, and undeserving citizens.

If we consumers stand by and allow the expansion of federal eavesdropping from basic phone calls to cell phones to emails, and now to Skype, or Internet calls, then we have only ourselves to blame. It's time that not only civil libertarians, but Internet Service Providers, stand up to this administration's ongoing assault on privacy, and the First Amendment. We must consider a boycott of those companies, and service providers, who comply with these new rules that are scheduled to go into effect in May.
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