January 15, 2002 3:45 PM PST

ISPs form lobbying group

A new lobbying group representing major Internet service providers met with Justice Department officials Tuesday to discuss such issues as clarifying how ISPs can work with law-enforcement officials during criminal investigations.

The United States Internet Service Provider Association, which includes America Online, Cable & Wireless, EarthLink, Verizon Online and WorldCom, formed earlier this year.

The security issues came to light in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the FBI asked several ISPs to assist in a probe of suspected terrorists' e-mail records.

The group is not targeting any specific piece of legislation pertaining to government investigations, but would like to define a set of best practices, said Stewart Baker, an attorney for the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson, who is serving as the group's general counsel.

"There are technical and legal limitations on what (the ISPs) can do," Baker said. "It's important everybody in the process understands how the technology works and what these companies can do."

Another priority of the USISPA is to protect its members from liability under foreign law when distributing content that's illegal outside the United States. The ISPs want greater protection, said Baker, in cases such as the French court decision against Yahoo for the auctioning of Nazi memorabilia on its site.

ISPs were also the target of a recent call for greater government oversight of the broadband market following the bankruptcies of Excite@Home, Rhythms NetConnections and other providers that disrupted and discontinued service to thousands of customers.

The lobby is skeptical that the government will try to regulate the relatively nascent broadband industry, according to Baker, but academics don't discount the possibility.

"I would not be surprised if members of Congress decide to have a hearing to investigate Excite@Home issues and ensure customers have some guarantees," said Fritz J. Messere, chairman of communications studies at State University of New York at Oswego.

The lobby's membership includes most of the major ISPs in the industry except one--Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash., behemoth's absence is conspicuous, according to Messere, and may be a calculated move against an unrelenting competitor, strengthened by its victory against the Department of Justice.

"When Microsoft wants to play in a competitive arena they can play awfully hard," said Messere. "The lobby may want to ensure Congress hears an alternative voice."

The fact that Verizon Online is part of the lobby is a sign that the major ISPs are willing to work with the Baby Bells in the interest of a common cause, despite historical differences over access to local networks.

 

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