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US regulators yesterday ruled tentatively in favor of an FBI and Justice Department proposal that would compel Internet broadband and VoIP providers to open their networks up to easy surveillance by law enforcement agencies.

At issue is the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a federal law that mandates surveillance backdoors in US telephone networks, allowing the FBI to start listening in on a target's phone calls within minutes of receiving court approval. Last March, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the US Drug Enforcement Administration jointly petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a ruling that cable modem companies and other broadband providers are also covered by the law.

"Our support for law enforcement is unwavering," said FCC chairman Michael Powell, reading from a statement at a public meeting of the commission Wednesday. "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."

The 5-0 ruling is open to public comment before it takes effect, and the FCC is seeking guidance on some implementation details, including the issue of how much time to allow service providers to wire their networks for spying.

Though the ruling was unanimous, two commissioners expressed concern that the FCC's interpretation of the 1994 law was precarious, and might later be overturned in the courts. "There are better was to build a system that will encourage judicial approval," said commissioner Michael Copps." As it is, the ruling is "too flush with tentative conclusions that stretch the statutory framework almost to tear," Copps said.

The decision is a milestone for the Justice Department, which first began lobbying for CALEA's application to the Internet over two years ago.

Federal law already compels ISPs to cooperate with law enforcement in court-approved surveillance of customers, but as police rely more on Internet snooping - with tools like the FBI's "Carnivore" DCS-1000 packet sniffer - they've begun to crave the speed and ease-of-use of the wiretapping infrastructure that CALEA grafted onto the modern telephone network.

The EFF, ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Democracy and Technology all filed comments opposing the plan, and an ACLU letter-drive generated hundreds of mailings from citizens against what the group called "the New Ashcroft Internet Snooping Request."

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