Avoid Internet-era Big Brother

Des Moines Register | October 27 2005

A federal order would force universities, online-communications companies and cities to upgrade Internet computer networks by spring 2007 to allow easier monitoring of Internet-based phone calls. The order has prompted a host of loud objections: An outrageous price tag. The potential for invasion of privacy. The fear that innovation will be stifled.

Congress should listen and revise the law. Law-enforcement officers fighting terrorism and other criminal activity should not face unreasonable obstacles in carrying out court-ordered wiretaps in the Internet era. But law changes also should not impose an unnecessary burden on civil liberties, creativity or the bottom line.

This week, numerous organizations filed federal-court challenges to the order, issued by the Federal Communications Commission. The order expands a 1994 wiretap law requiring telecom companies to pay to make surveillance access easier for federal agencies.

Higher-education institutions, in particular, have been outspoken in opposing the order. The American Council on Education has estimated that required upgrades could cost colleges and universities as much as $7 billion.

At the University of Iowa, the worst-case scenario — replacing all equipment for all network electronics — could cost $10 million to $14 million, said Steve Fleagle, chief information officer. "I would like to understand better what the problem is that the law-enforcement agencies are trying to solve. I want to support them, but I want to do it in the most cost-efficient manner."

Now, when law-enforcement agents present a court order for monitoring Internet communications, school officials assist them in zeroing in on a specific location. One concern is that the FBI wants to do monitoring from remote locations. That would give the agency a Big Brotherish reach.

But the biggest concern of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., is that the order would give the FBI the authority to approve all new technologies, a threat to the freewheeling creativity that's made the Internet so successful, said John Morris, the center's staff counsel.

Updating the law to allow wiretapping in the Internet era should not come at the cost of privacy, creativity or billions in added expense.


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