Friday, May 05, 2006

Judge calls wiretapping argument "gobbledygook"

An appeals court panel has sharply criticized the Bush administration's new rules making it easier to eavesdrop on Internet phone calls.

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."

At another point in the hearing, Judge Edwards told the FCC's lawyer his arguments were "gobbledygook" and "nonsense." The court's decision was expected within several months.

Yowch.

The question at hand is whether Internet Service Providers are "information services", which are explicitly exempted from a 1994 law requiring that telephone service providers ensure their equipment can accomodate police wiretaps. That's what allows monitoring of e-mail conversations and instant messaging, for example.

On the other hand, the judge seemed to agree that the law covers "voice over Internet protocol", or VOIP, which uses Internet connections but functions just like a traditional phone.

This is not a big thing, especially since Congress could easily revise the law to more precisely spell out what they wish to allow. But it's good to see the judicial system keeping an eye out for civil liberties.

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