Reaction to FCC Decision to Extend CALEA to VoIP

August 11, 2005
Ralph Conner

(August 12, 2005 -- Chicago, IL) The Federal Communications Commission announced on August 5 it would require providers of Internet phone calls and broadband services to ensure their equipment can allow police wiretaps.

The following statement in response to the announcement introduction can be attributed to Steven Titch, senior fellow - IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute, a 21-year-old nonprofit research organization based in Chicago. Titch can be contacted for further information by telephone at 281/571-4322 (office) or 312/925-0464 (cell), or by email at titch@heartland.org.


However well intended, the FCC's ruling to expand federal wiretapping laws to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calls is another case of knee-jerk decision-making without regard to cost, consequences, or even consistency with its past rulings.

As written, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) applies to telecommunications services, not information services, which is how the FCC has defined VoIP for the purposes of federal pre-emption of state regulations. The FCC thus has muddied its own policy waters, creating a back door for every state that wants to regulate and tax this new service.

Moreover, the CALEA rule is another example of "feel-good" rulemaking designed to make it appear as if officials are "doing something," while actual measures of cost and effectiveness remain vague.

IP traffic does not use direct end-to-end connections, which means criminals can use easily acquired programming skills to encrypt VoIP calls and hide origination and destination information. While the tools exist to defeat such efforts by criminals to hide their tracks, the cost is high and they require frequent adaptation as criminals adjust. If history is any indication, the government will demand these unknown costs be borne, not by law enforcement agencies like the FBI, but by VoIP companies and their customers.

In addition, in the rush to implement these new demands too little thought is being given to whether this tinkering will compromise overall IP network security. Since many IP telephony companies are start-ups, mandates such as these will divert capital that needs to be applied to network, service, and quality improvements essential for VoIP competitiveness.

Already saddled with the FCC's unrealistic deadlines and technology demands for E911 compatibility, the nascent VoIP industry--and the consumer choice it represents--stand to be strangled in the crib by overwrought regulators.


Steven Titch (titch@heartland.org) is senior fellow - IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, its goal is to help build social movements in support of ideas that empower people. Among other publications, Heartland publishes IT&T News, a monthly newsletter addressing technology and telecommunications policy issues. Heartland is supported by approximately 1,500 donors and members. For more information, call Ralph Conner, Public Affairs Director, 312/377-4000, or email him at conner@heartland.org.