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VoIP catches Big Brother out

Yesterday Michael Jennings introduced me to Skype, a sort of instant messaging program that is very good at voice communications. This is part of an ongoing trend which is seeing computer networks challenge the traditional telephone networks for business.

Because rather then pay a large sum of money to make an international phone call, I’m now able to speak with Michael in London from my Australian home, for free, and with a better sound quality then I was able to do before.

So as you can imagine, it is a time of fast change in the telephone business. This has implications wider then the share prices of telephone companies.

To encourage take up of VoIP, legislation has been introduced in the US Senate, by Senator John Sununu. The VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act of 2004 is designed to exempt this technology from most state and federal regulations.

Needless to say there’s been plenty of opposition to this. Much of the opposition comes from self-interested telephone companies, but the US Dept of Justice is not happy either.

The VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act of 2004, sponsored by Senator John Sununu, would exempt VoIP service from a wire-tapping regulation called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, commonly used to listen in on traditional telephone calls, said Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s criminal division.

“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,” Parsky told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday. “If any particular technology is singled out for special exemption from these requirements, that technology will quickly attract criminals and create a hole in law enforcement’s ability to protect the public and national security.”

You can read Laura Parsky’s complete testimony here

What this statement is all about is that the Dept of Justice has got quite accustomed to using the wiretap to track down undesirables and is most unhappy that this legislation might prevent them from doing so in the future.

This is part of a wider trend that I suspect we will see more of, with people taking the opportunity to try out new ways of communicating with each other, and regulatory agencies scrambling to keep up. In the United States, there are US Senators who seem, like Senator Sununu, who consider privacy issues and freedom from regulation important. I fear that when the EU catches up, as it surely will, that those issues will be the least of the concerns of the people who draft the regulations.

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6 comments to VoIP catches Big Brother out

  • Skype is a splendid bit of software…. encrypted end to end.

  • Scott, you will find that Skype is VoIP with added instant messanger as a function. Never heard Skype described as: a sort of instant messaging program that is very good at voice communications. heh.

  • Ah well I always was a real gun at finding the right word to describe these technological marvels.

  • I’m just waiting for Skype to come out with an OS X version. Then I’ll have that and PGP – secure, bug-free communication over the Internet. Lovely.

  • I actually think that Scott’s description is a pretty good one. Most other instant messaging software includes voice conversation facilities as well, it’s just that in most instances the voice conversation isn’t very good. Skype is a tool with extremely similar facilities except that the voice conversation facility actually works, and that is why most people who are using it are doing so. More import even than that is that Skype is peer to peer rather than relying on centralised databases. (I am also happy that it means that I am no longer required to use IM software that relies on centralised databases and which belongs to Yahoo or Microsoft, as I don’t like the privacy implications or other concessions I have to make to use their tools especially).

    And who cares about OS X. Skype have provided a version for Linux, which is the important thing.

  • If the terrorists and criminals were really clever, they’d use their own software to communicate across the Internet.

    After all, any computer in the world can send arbitrary information to any other computer in the world all by itself. Services like Skype just package this ability up and make it easy for the average consumer to use.

    So worrying about regulating Internet services is a bit moot. Unless intelligence agencies can monitor every single packet of data that traverses the ‘net, they’re doomed to failure.