Basement webcasters are using an AOL-owned streaming service to pipe private cellular phone conversations out onto the Net. AOL is digging into the issue.
You can hear almost anything on the Internet these days -- maybe even your own phone conversations.
America Online said Thursday morning that it was investigating Internet broadcasts of private cell-phone conversations captured with private scanner hardware and streamed out over the Net through its Shoutcast service.
Shoutcast lets anyone with an Internet connection deliver any one of dozens of audio feeds of their choice. Basement netcasters the world over use MP3-encoded audio streams to channel home-brewed broadcasts to users of MP3 playback software in real time.
"If you listen for a while, you'll hear credit card numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and all kinds of information I'm sure the people on the cell phones don't want the entire Internet to know," said Thomas Edwards, founder of webcasting company The Sync.
"The legal implications are significant."
Edwards said he's heard what sound like both wireless phone and cell-phone conversations. The cell-phone conversations are typically interrupted every two minutes as cellular providers change a call's radio frequency, he said.
The conversations could be heard on the Shoutcast home page at Nullsoft, the company hosting the service, as recently as Wednesday night. But Thursday morning, no feeds with titles indicating a cell-phone conversation were listed.
Nullsoft parent company America Online said the company was made aware of the issue only Thursday morning and began investigating.
"We want to act responsibly and swiftly so when information comes to our attention that a user has posted information that could be unlawful, we're going to review it, and if necessary, remove it," said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.
As of Thursday morning, the company had not yet removed any feeds from the Shoutcast site. A system monitor running on the Shoutcast site at the same time detected 2,357 people listening to 569 active servers.
Telecommunications law generally removes Internet service providers from liability for information sent through a service's network. Legal cases have also established the provider as a conduit, or common carrier. End users, and not the network provider, are liable for illegal or libelous information.
Edwards said he checks into Shoutcast every two weeks and had only just begun to notice the cell-phone conversations. He says it may be that most of the feeds show up late at night.
In policy and disclaimer material on the Shoutcast site, Nullsoft takes a hands-off stance on content fed through its site.
"Nullsoft, Inc. is not responsible for the content of what is broadcast below. Nullsoft, Inc. believes in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and will not review or censure any broadcast. Nullsoft, Inc. maintains no responsibility for the content of any broadcast."
Nullsoft also publishes WinAmp, the popular MP3 player for listening to Shoutcast and MP3-based music files.