Webtapping Alert

Ashcroft prays your indulgence while he seeks to control the Internet

Continuing his relentless crusade against the forces of evil, Attorney General John Ashcroft is trying to give cops an easy, built-in system to spy on practically all Internet communications.

As if we weren't all busy enough, the public comment period on this sweeping, draconian plan opened September 23 and closes November 8—as if the Federal Communications Commission has much sympathy for any objections to it.

The plan is to extend the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which orders that U.S. telephone networks put surveillance back doors in their networks, to Web-based phone service (the Voice Over Internet Protocol) and the rest of the Internet.

The FCC voted unanimously in favor of the plan last month, the British computer journal The Register notes, quoting FCC Chairman Michael Powell as saying, "Our support for law enforcement is unwavering. It is our goal in this proceeding to ensure that law enforcement agencies have all of the electronic surveillance capabilities that CALEA authorizes to combat crime and terrorism and support homeland security."

Basically, all the FCC wants to hear from the rest of us is how to implement this Internet snooping, which will be run by the FBI.

Privacy groups are very public in their outrage. "Instead of making the Internet look like the telephone system of the past," said the Center for Democracy and Technology's Jim Dempsey, "the FBI and other law enforcement agencies need to acquire in-house capabilities to analyze digital communications. They should use the Internet, not try to control it."

Dempsey's energetic group says this is "one of the gravest threats in years" to the Internet.

As the equally hard-working Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) notes, Congress specifically excluded e-mails and Internet access from the bill when it was passed in 1994. Now the FCC wants to bypass Congress for authority to broaden CALEA to include the Web. (Eavesdrop on wiretapping issues at this EPIC site.)

What do you expect from these second-generation schnooks? The prime mover on this in Congress is John Sununu, whose daddy was George Bush Sr.'s chief of staff. The FCC chairman, Michael Powell, is the scarily arch-conservative son of George Bush Jr.'s secretary of state.

As for Ashcroft, well, his daddy was a preacher, but considering his track record, especially his penchant for "Godly reformation" and his inability to control his own radical bad self from, say, sweeping ordinary Muslims off the streets and detaining them like so much rubbish for as long as he likes, his political daddy seems to be Oliver Cromwell.

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