Federal law protects communication over the Internet in much the same way it protects communication by the more traditional means of telephone and mail. Just as it has long been a federal offense to intercept another person’s telephone calls or mail, it is illegal to intercept or disclose communications that occur over the Internet as e-mail, voice mail, Internet-based telephone calls, or any other private Internet-based communication.
Under 18 U.S.C. ¤ 2511, federal law specifically protects individuals from eavesdropping and companies from industrial espionage. All third parties are prohibited from unauthorized interception or disclosure of private communications, except under certain exceptions. Exceptions to the prohibition cover employees of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), law enforcement personnel, and the employees of Internet service providers. FCC employees may intercept communications in the course of monitoring responsibilities for enforcement of federal communications law. Generally, law enforcement personnel require court approval in order to intercept private communications; however, in certain cases involving national security, this is not required. Employees of Internet service providers are banned from intercepting private communications except in the normal course of their employment under certain exceptions:
- The interception is necessary incident to the rendition of his or her service or to the protection of the rights or property of the Internet provider
- Observing or random monitoring is only permissible for mechanical or service quality control checks
- The service has been ordered by law enforcement officials to intercept communications in the course of a criminal investigation
Penalties may include fines, imprisonment from one to five years, or both.