WASHINGTON -- A US appeals panel sharply challenged the Bush administration yesterday over new rules making it easier for police and the FBI to wiretap Internet phone calls. A judge said the government's courtroom arguments were ''gobbledygook."
The skepticism expressed so openly toward the administration's case encouraged civil liberties and education groups that argued that the government is improperly applying telephone-era rules to a new generation of Internet services.
''Your argument makes no sense," US Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards told Jacob Lewis, the lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission.
At another point in the hearing, Edwards told Lewis that his arguments were ''gobbledygook" and ''nonsense."
The court's decision was expected within several months.
Edwards appeared skeptical over the FCC's decision to require that providers of Internet phone service and broadband services must ensure their equipment can accommodate police wiretaps under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.
The new rules go into effect in May 2007.
The 1994 law was originally aimed at ensuring court-ordered wiretaps could be placed on wireless phones.
The Justice Department, which has lobbied aggressively on the subject, warned in court papers that failure to expand the wiretap requirements to the fast-growing Internet phone industry ''could effectively provide a surveillance safe haven for criminals and terrorists who make use of new communications services."
Critics said the new FCC rules are too broad and inconsistent with the intent of Congress when it passed the 1994 surveillance law, which excluded categories of companies described as information services.
The FCC asserted that providers of high-speed Internet services should be covered under the 1994 law because their voice-transmission services can be considered separately from information services. ''Congress intended to cover services [in the 1994 law] that were functionally equivalent" to traditional telephones, Lewis said.
The panel appeared more inclined to support the FCC's argument that Internet-phone services, which allow users to dial and receive calls from traditional phone numbers, may be covered under the 1994 law and required to accommodate court-ordered wiretaps. The technology, popularized by Vonage Holdings Corp. in Holmdel, N.J., is known as ''voice over Internet protocol."