Senate Commerce Panel Set for VoIP Vote

Over the objections of the Justice Department, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to approve July 20 a voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) bill that law enforcers say would frustrate their wiretapping authority to track terrorists and other criminals using the technology.

“I believe most members of the Commerce Committee will support the bill, understanding that VoIP technology empowers consumers as it disrupts traditional regulators’ mindset,” said VoIP bill sponsor Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.).

VoIP is a cost-efficient alternative to circuit-switched phone technology that has sparked great interest within the cable industry.

VoIP calls can be made over the Internet using a headset plugged into a computer or over IP networks that allow consumers to use their current residential phone equipment, sometimes with the need for adapters.

Like most industries interested in VoIP, cable operators want to keep the service deregulated, though cable companies have acknowledged the need to accommodate law enforcement.

The Justice Department has complained that because VoIP would not be classified in the Sununu bill (S. 2281) as a telecommunications service, federal officials could not order VoIP providers to install technology used to track criminal conspiracies as they are occurring. After a recent hearing, Sununu said Justice was using scare tactics to stir opposition to his bill.

Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), seemed to side with Justice by saying VoIP “should not become the communications medium of choice for terrorists.”

Both the FBI and the Justice Department want to preserve their wiretapping powers under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (commonly known as CALEA) to monitor VoIP calls made by foreign and domestic criminals.

In a statement, Sununu said his bill, which would largely maintain VoIP’s deregulatory status nationwide, was necessary to prevent federal and state regulatory oversight of a dynamic yet nascent technology.

“It is a simple choice for members: vote to establish a clear legal regime based on technological innovation and consumer choice or vote in favor of multilayered regulation of VoIP that will let chaos reign. Those who use email and instant messaging should know if members vote to regulate Internet applications such as VoIP, those technologies are next.”