Senate Panel to Vote on VoIP Bill

Over the objections of the Department of Justice, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to approve a voice-over-Internet-protocol bill July 20 that law enforcers said 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 next week,” VoIP-bill sponsor Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) said, “understanding that VoIP technology empowers consumers as it disrupts traditional regulators’ mind-set.”

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, although they have acknowledged the need to accommodate law enforcement.

The DOJ 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 the DOJ was using scare tactics to stir opposition to his bill.

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

Both the FBI and the DOJ 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 prepared 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,” he added. “Those who use e-mail and instant messaging should know that if members vote to regulate Internet applications such as VoIP, those technologies are next.”