ISPs slam into wiretap deadline

Monday CALEA cutoff a tough one, especially for little guys

U.S. broadband and VOIP providers on Monday hit a deadline to prove they could accommodate law-enforcement wiretaps.

The Federal Communications Commission in 2005 required broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) and VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) carriers that connect to the public telephone network to comply with a wiretap access law. Under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), service providers have to prove they're equipped for investigators to carry out the equivalent of a traditional wiretap.

The broadband and VOIP providers had to send the FCC by March 12 a plan to comply with CALEA, and by Monday they had to either set up a system that allows monitoring or hire an outside company to make it possible. Those that don't comply must make a good-faith effort to do so and may be referred for enforcement.

Lawmakers have voiced concern, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, about the potential for hidden communications among criminals over the Internet. The drive for surveillance is not limited to the U.S. and has raised concerns among privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing AT&T Inc. over alleged participation in what EFF calls an illegal wiretapping program by the U.S. government. EFF also sued the government over the extension of CALEA, arguing it overstepped the law, but lost in appeals court last year.

The rule has hit some smaller VOIP companies hard, according to IDC VOIP analyst Will Stofega.

"The technical issues are for the most part solved, but getting people to comply and making sure everyone's up and running is tough," Stofega said. Vonage Holdings Corp., the most prominent independent VOIP service provider, is testing its compliance system with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to spokeswoman Brooke Schulz.

The cost of compliance has also posed challenges for the country's thousands of mostly small wireless ISPs, according to Michael Anderson, chairman of, a national WISP group. But all want to comply and the government has been flexible, he said.

Having the government approve Internet infrastructure is bad news for innovation, said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at EFF.

"If the Internet 15 years ago had been subject to CALEA, it probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground," Tien said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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