The Obama administration is pushing for new regulations governing Internet communications, giving broader authority to federal law enforcement to wiretap the Web. New regulations will be sent to Congress next year, The New York Times reports, that would require online companies to build in "back doors" for law enforcement, making it possible for the government to both intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

Many government regulations lag behind the realities of technological change. So, gone are the days when the FBI could easily tap into land line telephone conversations to monitor criminal conversations. These conversations first moved to mobile phones, and now they're online. And according to law enforcement, they're increasingly occurring via social networks like Facebook and peer-to-peer services like Skype.

The proposed regulations will require service providers to have a way to unscramble any encrypted messages - whether sent via phone or Web - and to make these readily available to federal authorities. Furthermore, software developers whose products enable peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception.

The Cost of Compliance

In the New York Times article, Valerie Caproni, general counsel for the FBI said, "We're talking about lawfully authorized intercepts. We're not talking expanding authority. We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security."

The 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) already requires telephone and broadband networks to have interception capabilities. According to The New York Times, it cost the FBI almost $10 million last year to help communications companies comply with law enforcement wiretap demands. But under the new law, the burden to have a built-in back door for the FBI shifts to developers.

However, if Congress passes such a sweeping law requiring online communications companies to have built-in back doors for the FBI, that burden shifts to the developer.

News of the proposed legislation has been condemned as a privacy violation. And its requirements could also potentially raise the barrier to entry for Web startups, who'd be forced to comply with the regulations, as well as pose challenges for existing companies who'd need to redesign and retrofit their technology to provide law enforcement with the wiretap access - to make the Internet work, perhaps, more like that land line telephone.

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