Telecoms is a moving target
VOIP has been around for almost 20 years now, but it has only really become a popular service in the last 10 years or so. As a result, regulation of VOIP technology has been a little slow to catch up.
According to Infonetics Research, in 2010 there were 157 million VOIP users worldwide. Moreover, by the year 2015, the VOIP industry is expected to have reached $74.5 billion. And recently, legislation in many countries is starting to reflect these industry trends.
However, because there is no real precedent for how the introduction of this new technology should be handled, there are many problems for legislators, as they try to pass laws without settling many of the issues associated with proposed laws.
As a result, popular business and residential VOIP providers are now subject to different laws and limitations all over the world. And this makes it doubly hard for legislators to come up with any cohesive set of laws or definitions by which to regulate service providers.
One of the biggest issues for VOIP providers is in wiretapping. All over the world, lawmakers require that communication providers that represent a certain proportion of the national communications network give police easy access to call interception.
Until recently, there was no good technology that would allow police to easily tap VOIP calls. In addition, VOIP providers were legally protected in the event that they attempted to aid police in tapping calls, but were unsuccessful. As long as they attempted aid, or claimed to attempt aid, they were protected against legal backlash.
However, because VOIP now represents a large part of the worldwide telecoms network, legislators all over the world are pushing for a change to regulations on VOIP providers, so that it would be easier for police to get warrants to tap VOIP calls, and VOIP providers which fail to offer aid would be held liable.
In the US, legislators are currently debating these points, with some Americans raising objections, but as many have pointed out, these regulations will only serve to guarantee that police have the same access to interception of VOIP calls as they do currently of analogue telephone calls. Legislators are not proposing any radical new ideas that differ terribly from interception laws already in effect in America.
Some American industry insiders, however, feel the proposed legal ramifications for VOIP providers will push providers to move their operations to other countries for fear of legal fees should they be unable to provide an effective intercept service.
Problems of simple definitions
This most recent debate over wiretapping laws sits on top of a heap of other more elemental issues in the changing telecoms industry.
For one, many countries have laws that allow the regulation of national telecoms providers such that providers can be taxed and monitored, and customers and competitors can find protection against unfair practices and monopolies. Many feel that because VOIP now represents such a major part of the telecoms industry, VOIP providers, too, should be subject to regulation.
However, for VOIP to be regulated like telecoms, a way to define VOIP would be needed (is it a telecoms service, or an information service like the Internet?), and from there, laws will need to be crafted specifically to fit VOIP so VOIP providers are not forced into parameters that do not fit them.
Once VOIP has found its proper place, it will be easier to implement laws like wiretapping requirements. This will improve the abilities of VOIP providers to introduce their services in new places.
Consequences of missing legislation
In several countries, legislators are striking out against international and national VOIP providers, and in some cases, preventing them from providing services in their countries.
In Gambia, legislators have outlawed all VOIP services because they found the independent operation of VOIP services based out of free public Internet cafes to be a threat to the national telecoms structure, and as such, the operations of these small businesses were determined to represent a threat to the economy.
In the UAE and in France, legislators are concerned over the missing access to interception for police. In France, legislators previously gave warning to Skype and asked it to declare itself a telecoms service so it could be held accountable to wiretapping laws. When Skype ignored the request, French legislators handed off the case to prosecutors, who will determine if Skype can be held accountable for breaking the law.
Similarly, in the UAE, legislators have banned the use of external Skype operators until the issue of the provider's status and subjectivity to wiretapping has been resolved.
This means citizens of these countries do not have access to VOIP services, and will not for the immediate future. However, VOIP is an extremely valuable technology and can open up new opportunities for people all over the world. For example, it has been suggested that VOIP may be a viable option for people living in remote areas. It is difficult to implement traditional copper telephone solutions in remote locations, and VOIP may present a cheap and reliable alternative.
This could mean people who have never or have only rarely had access to telecoms services before can use VOIP to change how they communicate, conduct business, and live their lives.
What will the future bring?
The more people continue to choose VOIP, the more pressure legislators will feel to settle these issues on the regulation of the VOIP service. These issues go hand-in-hand with similar issues about the spread of high-speed Internet services. For as much as many of us rely on Internet services, a relatively small number of people living in the world actually have access to the Internet.
However, high-speed Internet represents a significant advantage for those who have it over those who don't, and as the great significance of these services is realised, the more laws will change to reflect that dependence.
Right now, global companies are experimenting in creating free public WiFi networks and WiFi cities. And as this kind of large-scale WiFi service has become an increasingly realistic option, lawmakers have started to entertain the idea of subsidising the installation of high-speed Internet services. In fact, in some states in the US, legislators have considered removing subsidy money from the repair of analogue landlines and reallocating towards efforts to improve high-speed Internet access.
This increase in consciousness about the importance of Internet services already plays a large part in international discussions on exchange of ideas, privacy, freedom of speech, and cultural disparity. The more clashes are faced across national lines, the more pressing the need for legislation will become.
Rachel Greenberg (http://plus.google.com/u/0/115143417977047043562?rel=author) is a tech and telecom writer for www.voipreview.org. She is interested in policy, legislation, and technological advancements, and how these changes affect the telecom customer base. You can follow Greenberg at her blog: http://www.voipreview.org/blogs/rachel-greenberg.