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Saturday, June 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Court: Internet phone wiretaps OK

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Companies that provide Web-based telecommunications services must allow wiretapping by law-enforcement officials, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The 2-1 ruling upholds a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision that companies such as Vonage, the country's largest provider of Internet phone service, are under the same legal obligation as telephone companies.

The requirement for a wiretap-compatible system could mean higher expenses for broadband-service companies and marks the further spread of regulation into Internet phone services.

The FCC issued its ruling based on Department of Justice concerns that new technology would not accommodate police wiretaps under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA.

Judge David Sentelle, writing for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, said the FCC "offered a reasonable interpretation" of the law.

In dissent, Judge Harry Edwards said the law should not apply to information services such as broadband Internet phone providers, also known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.

The law "does not give the FCC unlimited authority to regulate every telecommunications service that might conceivably be used to assist law enforcement," he wrote.

Edwards was appointed by President Carter. Sentelle was appointed by President Reagan. Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who sided with Sentelle, is an appointee of the current President Bush.

The American Council on Education, worried about new costs on university networks, challenged the FCC decision and argued that information services should be exempt. from the law. The court ruled that private networks, such as those at universities, are exempt.

Peer-to-peer communications, such as instant-messaging programs, are also beyond the law's reach because they communicate between computers.

Attorney Matthew Brill, who argued the case, is considering whether to appeal.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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