Wheeler To Hill: FCC Will Make Sure Intercept Tech Is Available

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Belgium Tuesday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler assured a concerned legislator that the FCC would make sure that the technology was in place for lawful intercepts of online communications, but signaled what was where the FCC's role ended.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) had asked Wheeler four months ago at an FCC oversight hearing just after the Paris terrorist attacks, what the FCC could do in conjunction with the committee to counter terrorist attacks and the way they use the Internet to broadcast their terrorism. Wheeler had suggested that Congress might need to update the definition of what a "lawful intercept" is under CALEA (the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act).

Wheeler said he did not think his agency had the authority to start shutting down websites used to promote terrorist attacks like those in Paris, though he said there might be some things the FCC could or should do when social media is used to promote violence, including getting on the phone with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to talk about the issue.

Barton asked Wheeler at Tuesday's hearing if he had looked at the issue since then and whether he had any recommendations for the committee.

Barton said he was not trying to get the FCC to "shut down the Internet," but that he thought there was a way to find a balance between openness and protecting the public.

Wheeler called it a "tragic time and a very serious issue." He said Congress has said the FCC's responsibility, and he emphasized that it was not just the FCC's authority, but its "responsibility" to make sure that in the networks the FCC regulates "there is the equipment to carry out lawful intercepts."

He said that was the scope of the FCC's authority. He said the question of what a lawful intercept is beyond the scope of that statutory authority.

He suggested that as they left the discussion last time, it was that it was up to Congress to make that determination.

But then, he said forcefully: " I will assure you sir that we will fully take the steps necessary to make sure that the equipment that is required to be able to make that lawful intercept is in place.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.