The governments stance on VOIP is creating uncertainty for many network providers heading into 2006.
Protesting that new federal wiretapping rules will stifle innovation and require the re-engineering of private IP networks at a huge expense, universities, ISPs, libraries and privacy organizations, along with Sun Microsystems Inc., are going to court to overturn the rules.
Two petitions were filed last month challenging the Federal Communications Commissions decision to apply the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, to voice-over-IP providers whose networks connect with the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).
Sun joined the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Pulver.com, Comptel and the American Library Association in filing a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Susan Landau, a distinguished engineer at Sun, said that building wiretapping protocols into IP increases the complexity of the technology and heightens the possibility of error, which would weaken national security rather than strengthen it.
The group maintains that the FCC has not shown that the new burdens on industry will actually make the nation more secure and that the FBI has not made a convincing case that it has difficulty conducting surveillance over the Internet today.
"This is really the first step in terms of extending CALEA to a huge diversity of services on the Internet," said John Morris, staff counsel at the CDT. "If the CALEA mandate can be imposed on VOIP, it will be imposed on things like instant messaging and Xbox Live."
Another rallying point of opposition is the complicated semantic explanations that the FCC provided in the rules. The commission decided last year that Internet communications like those offered by Pulver.com fall under the regulatory classification of "information services" and therefore are not subject to traditional telephone mandates.
CALEA exempts the Internet, and so, to extend the law to VOIP, the FCC had to perform a "convoluted definitional shell game," said Jonathan Askin, legal counsel at Pulver.com. "Under the guise of national security, we believe the FCC usurped Congress role."
The American Council on Education filed a separate challenge with the court, arguing that compliance with the rules will require colleges and universities to spend $7 billion in upgrading switches and routers.
Some lawmakers have already joined their voices with the opposition. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cautioned last month that the mandates could give the government the authority to dictate software designs, drive innovators offshore and threaten security as well as privacy.
"The expansion of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act to the Internet is troubling, and it is not what Congress intended," Leahy said. "We certainly need to hear whether law enforcement agencies are actually experiencing interception problems on the Internet, since the last thing we should do is fix a problem that does not exist."
The FCCs rule, issued in August 2004, gives VOIP providers until 2007 to ready their networks to comply with CALEA. For some nonprofit organizations, universities and libraries, the cost of buying new equipment and re-engineering the networks may just be too high.
"Whats at issue here is public libraries ability to provide Internet access," said Carrie Lowe, Internet policy specialist at the ALAs Washington office.