Internet lobby vows 'wiretap mandate' will be 'dead on arrival' in Congress

A lobbying group representing Internet companies including Google, Facebook and Yahoo is fighting back against a draft federal proposal that would make it easier for police to intercept online communications as they occur.

"The Department of Justice has not made the case for granting law enforcement broad new powers over Internet companies for purposes of new wiretap authority. There are a number of serious unintended consequences with this flawed proposal." Michael Beckerman, the CEO of The Internet Association, said in an emailed statement.

"A wiretap mandate for the Internet is dead on arrival," he added.

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The Washington Post reported on Monday that a draft proposal from an interagency task force would empower courts to levy hefty fines on Internet companies that fail to comply with wiretap orders. The fines would start at tens of thousands of dollars and would start doubling every day after a 90-day period, anonymous sources told the newspaper.

For several years, the FBI has complained that it is becoming difficult to intercept the communications of suspected criminals as more people use online services instead of phones.

"A growing gap exists between the statutory authority of law enforcement to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to intercept those communications," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in late 2011. "Should this gap continue to grow, there is a very real risk of the government 'going dark' resulting in an increased risk to national security and public safety."

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994 imposes technical requirements on phone companies to speedily comply with court-approved wiretap orders. But the law doesn't cover Internet services like instant messaging, email or social media sites. 

During a talk at the American Bar Association last month, FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann said gaining more power to wiretap Internet communications is his agency's "top priority" for the year. 

But civil liberties advocates are also fighting back against the proposal, which has not yet been made public and would have to be approved by Congress.

"We're really concerned about any proposal that may build backdoors into Internet communications. The privacy and cybersecurity concerns could be enormous," said Chris Calabrese, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "We also think there's potential costs to innovation and keeping the Internet robust, vibrant and free of unwarranted surveillance."

Joe Hall, a senior technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology, warned that requiring Internet companies to build surveillance capabilities could empower hackers to access sensitive communications.

"A wiretapping mandate is a vulnerability mandate," he said. "Once you build a wiretap capability into products and services, the bad guys will find a way to use it."