By TED BRIDIS, Associated Press Writer
A U.S. appeals panel challenged the Bush administration Friday morning
over new rules making it easier for police and the FBI to wiretap
Internet phone calls. One judge told the government its courtroom
arguments were "gobbledygook" and invited its lawyer to return to his
office and "have a big chuckle."
The skepticism expressed so openly toward the government's case during
a hearing in U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia emboldened
a broad group of civil liberties and education groups who argued that
the U.S. improperly applied telephone-era rules to a new generation
of Internet services.
"Your argument makes no sense," U.S. Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards
told the lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission, Jacob
Lewis. "When you go back to the office, have a big chuckle. I'm not
missing this. This is ridiculous. Counsel!"
At another point in the hearing, Edwards told the FCC's lawyer his
arguments were "gobbledygook" and "nonsense."
The court's decision was expected within several months.
Edwards appeared skeptical over the FCC's decision to require that
providers of Internet phone service and broadband services must ensure
their equipment can accommodate police wiretaps under the 1994
Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA. The
new rules go into effect in May 2007.
Critics said the new FCC rules are too broad and inconsistent with the
intent of Congress when it passed the 1994 surveillance law, which
excluded categories of companies described as information services.
The FCC argued that providers of high-speed Internet services should
be covered under the 1994 law because their voice-transmission
services can be considered separately from information
services. "Congress intended to cover services (in the 1994 law) that
were functionally equivalent" to traditional telephones, Lewis said.
"There's nothing to suggest that in the statute," Edwards replied. "Stating
that doesn't make it so."
The panel appeared more willing to support the FCC's argument that
Internet-phone services -- which allow users to dial and receive calls
from traditional phone numbers -- may be covered under the 1994 law
and required to accommodate court-ordered wiretaps. The technology,
popularized by Holmdel, N.J.-based Vonage Holdings Corp., is known as
"voice over Internet protocol," or VOIP.
"Voice-over is a very different thing," U.S. Circuit Judge David
B. Sentelle said. He said it offered "precisely the same" functions as
traditional telephone lines.
Edwards told the lawyer for the civil liberties groups, Matthew Brill,
that on his challenge that VOIP services aren't covered under the
surveillance law, "I didn't think you have it."
Education groups had challenged the FCC rules because they said the
requirements would impose burdensome new costs on private university
The third judge on the panel, Janice Rogers Brown, did not comment or
ask any questions during the arguments.
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Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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