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The FCC's invite to Big Brother

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh explains why you'll be tracked wherever you go if the federal government has its way.

It's cheaper and easier than ever to make phone calls over the Internet, thanks to innovative gadgets like a Wi-Fi handset from ZyXel.

With the ZyXel phone, you can make phone calls wherever there's an accessible Wi-Fi connection. But if the federal government has its way, you'll be tracked wherever you go.

Buried in the convoluted 91-page legalese of a recent Federal Communications Commission release on voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a proposal with worrisome privacy implications.

It isn't wise to copy regulations crafted for analog phone networks and apply them to a packet-switched universe.

In it, the FCC suggests ways to "automatically identify the location" of all VoIP callers with handsets that connect to the telephone network. Those methods include creating an "inventory" of every Wi-Fi access point in the United States, engaging in "mapping and triangulation" of those access points, compiling an "access jack inventory" for wired VoIP users, or even mandating that Net phones include GPS receivers and broadcast their exact latitude and longitude.

The justification for those regulations sounds reasonable enough: to let emergency services identify an Internet caller's location when he or she dials 911. It's part of an ongoing proceeding in which the FCC gave VoIP operators until October to route 911 calls to the geographically appropriate call center.

It's easy enough to identify the location of office VoIP phones that stay in one spot. But the FCC is worried about the arrival of mobile VoIP phones such as ZyXel's, as well as business travelers taking a Vonage-like wired handset on the road.

The FCC warned in the 91-page document released in June that companies "often have no reliable way to discern from where their customers are accessing the VoIP service...There currently are no solutions that allow a provider of portable VoIP services to determine the location of an end user absent the end user affirmatively telling the service provider where he or she is."

"We intend to adopt in a future order an advanced e911 solution for interconnected VoIP that must include a method for determining a user's location without assistance from the user, as well as firm implementation deadlines," the FCC added.

In a subsequent appearance before a gaggle of Washington, D.C., telecommunications lawyers, a senior FCC official from the wireline competition bureau predicted a location requirement deadline of July 1, 2006. (As a side note, I think it's cowardly for FCC officials to refuse to have their names mentioned, but it was a condition of attending the event.)

"Public safety is not keen on solutions with customer intervention," the official said, adding that the FCC is being lobbied by companies selling location technology, including one based on "measuring broadcast signals."

Unanswered privacy questions
The FCC's proposal raises a number of questions: Who will have access to the location data stored by VoIP handsets? What rules will govern police monitoring of your moment-to-moment location? Should the federal government really be in the business of compiling a database of every wireless or wired access point in the country? And once such a database is created, what's to stop the Feds from saying that computer users also must have their locations registered?

I'm sure the FCC will claim that the location-identifying requirement is reasonable, pointing out with some justification that cellular providers are subject to similar regulations and some commercial Wi-Fi-location services are becoming available.

But the Internet is not the telephone network, and it isn't wise to copy regulations crafted for analog phone networks and apply them to a packet-switched universe.

For one thing, what if someone doesn't want 911 service on his or her VoIP phone? I already have a landline and a cell phone at home, and I might add a VoIP phone to the mix. I don't need 911 service and don't wish to pay higher prices for a GPS receiver or location-identifying hardware that would be included in it. Mandating 911 service would amount to a tax on VoIP customers.

A second option is for the FCC simply to do nothing. What would likely happen next is some VoIP providers would offer location-enabled 911 calling to customers who wanted it (for an additional fee), and others would not. That would permit the normal functions of a free market to work--and avoid zany proposals involving Uncle Sam registering all wired and wireless access points.

There's still time to let the FCC know what you think. The deadline for public comments is Monday, and they can be filed on the FCC's Web site. Just remember to fill in the spot labeled "proceeding 05-196."