As VOIP services continue multiplying nationwide, offering businesses and consumers ever-greater value, questions about regulating IP telephony are growing louder and more insistent.
In general, as previously stated in this space, we favor the hands-off approach taken by the Federal Communications Commission chairman, Michael Powell, who recognizes that voice over IPs growth could be stunted by an onerous burden of regulatory requirements. But it is impossible to look at VOIP in a vacuum; its part of business and part of life and will become ever-more so in the years ahead.
In a sign of VOIPs mainstream status, the issue of wiretapping by law enforcement officials has recently come to the fore. In March, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency asked that CALEA, the act that governs wiretapping of telephone and cell phone conversations, be extended to encompass VOIP traffic. Last month, the FCC issued a tentative position supporting that extension and requesting comment from interested parties. We think, with appropriate caution, this is the right course.
Some would say that adapting VOIP routers to detect and intercept specific conversations burdens VOIP providers with a difficult, expensive technology challenge. From what we can see, the packet-sniffing technology needed, while not elementary, is not beyond possibility. Those who believe the technology is exceptionally difficult to implement should speak up during the comment period.
Sure, VOIP providers will bear some implementation cost, and that will, in turn, be passed to consumers. But there is a cost to society in not giving law enforcement agents the tools to do their job. Those who commit crimes, terrorists and drug traffickers, in particular, are intelligent, well-organized and tech-savvy. They will quickly move to VOIP communications if doing so shields them from detection.
Some would also say that packet sniffers are able to look at all packets indiscriminately. There are some grounds for this fear. Thus, the careful granting of warrants, now expected in conventional wiretaps, must be strictly adhered to with regard to VOIP traffic.
There are many unanswered questions, but thats to be expected in exploring new territory. For example, when federal wiretapping laws were changed a decade ago, Congress allocated funds to cover the cost of new technology. Similarly, it may be necessary to set aside funds or otherwise assist VOIP providers in implementing new packet-tapping technologies.
Granting permission of any kind for government agencies to monitor private individuals should rightly raise a red flag. Thus, we strongly recommend that congressional oversight be applied to initial instances of VOIP surveillance. However, wiretapping is far from new; we have lived with it for years. The Internet is different, but it is not so different as to be beyond the range of responsible law enforcement.
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