Criminals could make plans over Internet phones without fear of getting caught if Congress does not ensure that existing wiretap laws apply, the U.S. Justice Department told a Senate committee on Wednesday.
Investigators could find it harder to monitor Internet-based phone calls if the government decides to exempt them from traditional telephone regulations, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Laura Parsky said.
But members of the Senate Commerce Committee said the Justice Department needed to show that a problem exists before they impose new regulations that could restrict the fast-growing communications technology.
"You are looking for a remedy for a problem that has not been documented," Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden said.
Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, promises to dramatically cut phone bills by using the Internet to carry voice calls. Start-ups like Vonage and established carriers like AT&T Corp. have signed up hundreds of thousands of customers over the past year.
Lawmakers and regulators must determine whether the new technology should be subjected to traditional phone requirements, such as emergency 911 service and access guarantees for the disabled and those living in remote rural areas.
A bill sponsored by New Hampshire Republican Sen. John Sununu would require the U.S. government rather than individual states to set standards, and would subject VoIP carriers to the same wiretap rules that apply to Internet providers like America Online, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Parsky said Sununu's bill could make it more difficult to monitor VoIP conversations because it might exempt them from a 1994 wiretap law that covers conference calling and other advanced phone services.
Though the Justice Department can currently monitor VoIP calls and other Internet communications, that could be more difficult in the future if VoIP callers use features like call forwarding, she said.
"I am here to underscore how very important it is that this type of telephone service not become a haven for criminals, terrorists and spies," she said.
That 1994 law allowed the FBI to shift millions of dollars in wiretap costs onto phone carriers who were forced to comply with a long list of technical standards, said James Dempsey, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.
Applying those standards to VoIP could smother the emerging industry, he said.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Congress should begin work on Sununu's bill even if it does not become law this year. There are few days left before Congress adjourns for the year and only major bills are expected to move.
"Since it is a breakthrough technology, there's going to be a lot of china broken," he said.