Telecom wags the Internet dog

There is an important New York Times article
today about the battle between law enforcement agencies and the FCC
over Internet policy.  The Justice Department wants broadband and
voice-over-IP applications classified as legacy “telecommunications
services,” so that it has an easier time gaining access for
wiretaps.  The problem is that classification brings with it a
whole set of baggage.  At worst, law enforcement’s approach would
force the Internet into the centralized, monopolized, regulated model
of the old telephone network. 

Law enforcement officials should certainly have the tools they need to
do their jobs.  But in this case, they seem to believe that
nothing else matters.  We would have better security by requiring
all telephone calls to be tapped and all airline passengers to be
chained to their seats.  We don’t do those things because the
negative consequences far outweigh the security benefits.  The
same test should apply here.

Congress passed the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act
(CALEA) in 1996 to address law enforcement concerns about wiretapping
data networks.  Law enforcement received further authority in 2001
under the PATRIOT Act.  If voice over IP creates unanticipated new
problems for law enforcement, Congress should consider new
legislation.  Re-architecting the  Net isn’t the way to get
there.

Now, this doesn’t mean all aspects of legacy telecom regulation are
bad.  The idea that monopoly transport networks should be open
platforms is entirely consistent with the basic architecture of the
Net.  And it doesn’t mean law enforcement should have no way to
gain legal access to VOIP conversations.  The point is that we
should examine the costs and benefits of every policy decision and use
the most precise tools available.  Just as a blanket rule labeling
everything involving packet data as unregulated would go too far, so
would a blanket rule that all packet data be regulated to satisfy law
enforcement. 

This issue is important because it points out how central the seemingly
arcane debates at the FCC are to the future of the Internet and
communications.  this is where the rubber is meeting the
pavement.  We’ll all be living with today’s decisions for years to
come.