Colleges fight call to re-wire campus networks for police wiretaps

Colleges and universities attacked the Federal Communications Commission last week for new regulations requiring campuses to pay for upgrades to their computer networks that would make it easier for law enforcement officials to monitor individual Internet use.

By reinterpreting a 1994 telecommunications law, the FCC said it will require all Internet providers to re-wire their systems to create “back doors” for the government to use for surveillance and security purposes. The organizations affected by this ruling are required to make the changes by the spring of 2007, with no government funding to cover expenses.

The American Council on Education, a group of 1,800 colleges and other higher education groups, filed a lawsuit against the FCC on October 24. The petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals describes the council’s members as “aggrieved by the order, in which the commission made findings and conclusions which are arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”

The council took issue mainly with the cost of making the required changes. The upgrades will cost each institution between $20 million and $30 million, according to the group.

Analysts said that the project would cost upwards of $7 billion nationwide, a figure that some worry will raise student tuition even more.

The council also said that the deadline for completing the changes is unreasonable. Colleges, universities and other affected institutions are required to complete the upgrades in just over a year.

There is also some objection as to whether or not educational institutions should even be considered Internet providers at all. The American Council on Education lawsuit said that the FCC arbitrarily decided that university networks functioned as “telecommunication carriers” so that the new requirements would apply to them under the 1994 law.

The group plans to ask the FCC to exempt colleges and universities from the new rule in the upcoming lawsuit, an option that the FCC is considering.

“We are still reviewing (the request for exemption),” FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said. “We will get additional comments about this issue from educational institutions, and then we’ll make a determination on whether or not there should be an exemption.”

The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act requires that the FCC “seeks comment on the appropriateness” of the new standards.

In the meantime, all institutions are still expected to plan for the changes. which the FCC said should be underway by November 15. The FCC has not said when it plans to address complaints from schools represented in the lawsuit.

In a statement, FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said that the commission would be willing to work with institutions that have problems with the current state of the ruling.

“Upon review of the record compiled and of [the law’s] legislative history, I believe that the construction we adopt is reasonable, particularly given law enforcement’s indisputably compelling needs,” she said.

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