WASHINGTON — Concerned that terrorists and criminals can easily communicate without being caught, the FBI wants to tap into online phone calls.
As federal regulators Monday debated how -- or whether -- to regulate the fast-growing technology of Internet phone service, the FBI and the Justice Department sought to ensure that law enforcement has the same ability to eavesdrop as it does on virtually every other form of communication.
Exempting Internet telephony from the wiretap provisions of federal law would "jeopardize the ability of federal, state and local governments to protect public safety and national security against domestic and foreign threats," Patrick W. Kelley, the FBI's deputy general counsel, and the Justice Department's John G. Malcolm, deputy assistant attorney general, wrote in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission.
Reached by phone Monday, Kelley declined to elaborate on his written remarks.
FCC officials characterized the FBI's concerns as "serious." They said the FCC, which already had begun a proceeding to address the potential economic harm that Internet telephony poses to traditional telephone service, was examining the wiretapping concerns of the Justice Department and the FBI.
It's not that law enforcement can't tap Internet calls. It's just difficult.
The unregulated technology of so-called voice-over-Internet protocol chops calls into digital packets and sends them over the Internet like e-mail. The packets are reassembled at their destination as speech.
Because Internet telephony largely circumvents traditional phone lines, it promises to save users billions of dollars in fees that carriers traditionally charge to route calls over the public phone network.
But calls are hard for law enforcement to intercept because, unlike a traditional phone network, Internet telephony is diffuse and travels along the Internet backbone. All a person needs to make an online call is an Internet connection, some software and a computer or dedicated Internet telephone that is sold by companies such as Cisco Systems Inc.
The FBI and Justice Department want the FCC to classify Internet-based telephony as a traditional telecommunications service, which would subject it to federal laws requiring carriers or software companies "to develop intercept solutions for lawful electronic surveillance."
Internet calling accounts for only about 1% of overall telecommunications revenue, but it is growing rapidly, and even traditional phone companies use the technology to route some calls.
Since Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, federal law enforcement officials have battled the telecommunications industry over efforts to extend federal wiretapping laws to new technologies. The act established a process that allowed the FCC to order standards to facilitate wiretapping.
In the past, the government has required phone companies to install electronic monitoring capability in their networks to allow the government to eavesdrop on private data communications for law enforcement and national security reasons.
The FCC recently required wireless companies to install technology to both eavesdrop on and track the location of cellphone users.
Civil liberty experts draw the line at the current effort, saying it potentially gives law enforcement too much control over how computer networks are built. They fear it also could lead to efforts to outlaw powerful data encryption if Internet telephony users begin encrypting calls.
"This represents a great threat to privacy and free speech," said Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
He said the FBI effort could stifle innovation and make communications less secure for all Americans because, in many cases, there's no phone company to act as an intermediary between law enforcement and customers.
"The government has always banked on the fact that when it comes to electronic communications, there's always a middleman" like the phone company, added Tien. "But Internet telephony has the potential to make that middleman go away and make conversations a lot more secure from government eavesdropping."
The FBI's concern emerged as the FCC began a series of highly anticipated meetings on the future of Internet telephony. Chairman Michael K. Powell told industry officials and policymakers Monday that the government should try to avoid regulation because it might hamper growth.
"Regulatory medicine can be poison to an otherwise healthy technology," Powell told the standing-room-only audience at the meeting. "No regulator, federal or state, should tread in the area without compelling justification to do so."
Fellow Republican FCC Commissioners Kathleen Q. Abernathy and Kevin J. Martin also called for regulatory restraint at the meeting. Abernathy said the technology required only "a light regulatory touch."
Democrats Jonathan S. Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, however, expressed concern about the technology's effect on public safety and the maintaining of universally affordable phone service. Traditional phone companies are required to provide universal service, subsidized by all customers.
Experts say the technology could transform the $300-billion telecommunications industry within the next decade. Equipment revenue at companies providing Internet-based telephone service totaled $3.3 billion last year and is expected to rise to $15.1 billion by 2007, said Thomas Valovic, a program director at technology researcher IDC, a unit of Boston-based International Data Group.