The federal government, vastly extending the reach of an 11-year-old law, is requiring hundreds of universities, online communications companies and cities to overhaul their Internet computer networks to make it easier for law enforcement authorities to monitor e-mail and other online communications.
The action, which the government says is intended to help catch terrorists and other criminals, has unleashed protests and the threat of lawsuits from universities, which argue that it will cost them at least $7 billion while doing little to apprehend lawbreakers.
Because the government would have to win court orders before undertaking surveillance, the universities are not raising civil liberties issues.
The order, issued by the Federal Communications Commission in August and first published in the Federal Register last week, extends the provisions of a 1994 wiretap law not only to universities, but also to libraries, airports providing wireless service and commercial Internet access providers.
It also applies to municipalities that provide Internet access to residents - rural towns or cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, which have plans to build their own Net access networks.
So far, however, universities have been most vocal in their opposition.
The 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, requires telephone carriers to engineer their switching systems at their own cost so that federal agents can obtain easy surveillance access.
Recognizing the growth of Internet-based telephone and other communications, the order requires that organizations like universities providing Internet access also comply with the law by spring 2007.
The Justice Department requested the order last year, saying that new technologies like telephone service over the Internet were endangering law enforcement's ability to conduct wiretaps "in their fight against criminals, terrorists and spies."
Justice Department officials, who declined to comment for this article, said in their written comments filed with the FCC that the new requirements were necessary to keep the 1994 law "viable in the face of the monumental shift of the telecommunications industry" and to enable law enforcement to "accomplish its mission in the face of rapidly advancing technology."
The FCC says it is considering whether to exempt educational institutions from some of the law's provisions, but it has not granted an extension for compliance.
Lawyers for the American Council on Education, the nation's largest association of universities and colleges, are preparing to appeal the order before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the council, said Friday.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil liberties group, has enlisted plaintiffs for a separate legal challenge, focusing on objections to government control over the way organizations, including hundreds of private technology companies, design Internet systems, James X. Dempsey, the center's executive director, said Friday.
The universities do not question the government's right to use wiretaps to monitor terrorism or criminal suspects on college campuses, Hartle said, only the rapid timetable for compliance and extraordinary cost.
Technology experts retained by the schools estimated that it could cost universities at least $7 billion just to buy the Internet switches and routers necessary for compliance. That figure does not include installation or the costs of hiring and training staff to oversee the sophisticated circuitry around the clock, as the law requires, the experts said.
"This is the mother of all unfunded mandates," Hartle said.
Even the lowest estimates of compliance costs would, on average, increase annual tuition at most U.S. universities by some $450, at a time when rising education costs are already a sore point with parents and members of Congress, Hartle said.
FCC officials declined to comment publicly, citing their continuing review of possible exemptions to the order.