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Google, Facebook, and others could face fines over government wiretap refusals

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security code graphic
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A new bill being drafted by a secret government task force would impose fines on internet companies — such as Facebook, Google, gaming, and VoIP companies — if they don't comply with court orders to allow law enforcement to wiretap user communications, The Washington Post reports. According to the the Post, the legislation is being written up to address the FBI's recent complaints that many web companies don't — or can't — comply with court orders forcing them to "intercept online communications" in real time. The FBI calls this the "going dark" problem.

It's unclear for now who's specifically behind this task force, and the proposed legislation hasn't been made public yet. But the report states that the bill would amend two laws that already allow for government wiretaps — the 1968 Wiretap Act and the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) — forcing more companies to comply with wiretap orders, and fining those that don't, or cannot. Even though many companies do comply with the orders right now, some companies do so only partially due to technical limitations (they don't have enough staff), and current laws exempt certain types of companies, such as online gaming companies and VoIPs. The new proposed fines would start in the "tens of thousands," but if they aren't paid within 90 days, they could double every day after that, according to the Post.

"These modifications could essentially make it much easier for foreign attackers."

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a web-user advocacy group that receives funding from Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies, blasted the proposal, saying it would "drive innovators overseas" to escape the potential fines. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at CDT, told The Verge that another problem was that even companies that do build "backdoors" into their systems to allow for government surveillance sometimes find that they increase their vulnerability to hackers. Just last week, Microsoft revealed that attackers behind a massive 2009 campaign known as "Aurora" were actually targeting accounts that opened up to wiretaps. "These modifications could essentially make it much easier for foreign attackers to breach our systems," Hall said. We've reached out to Google and Facebook for their responses to the reported legislation and will update when we hear back.

Update: Michael Sussmann, a lawyer with the firm Perkins Cole, which represents Facebook and Google (among other high-profile tech and political clients) told The Verge the proposed legislation is being drafted by a task force led by the Justice Department and the FBI. "The [Obama] Administration likely will want bills introduced in both Houses," Sussmann said, but declined to provide an expected timeline for when that could occur.