The programmers and engineers who design and maintain the Internet are heading for a showdown with the FBI over whether the global computer network should be made wiretap-friendly.

The issue comes up tonight in meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in Washington. The group has been debating just how far it should go to help law enforcement officials conduct wiretaps--especially now that some telephone traffic is moving onto the Internet.

Internet leaders have urged the task force to avoid taking action that might make it easier to eavesdrop on the Internet. An open letter signed by officials of such high-tech companies as Sun Microsystems Inc. and PSINet Inc., as well as by privacy advocates, cryptography experts and legal scholars, urged the group not to build wiretapping capabilities into the network: "We believe that such a development would harm network security, result in more illegal activities, diminish users' privacy, stifle innovation, and impose significant costs on developers of communications," they wrote.

"It is not a good decision for the future of the Internet," said Austin Hill, founder of Internet privacy company Zero-Knowledge Systems and author of the anti-wiretap letter.

Also weighing in was Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), who wrote a letter to the task force's chairman, Fred Baker, calling on the group to turn away any effort to allow wiretapping "for the sake of protecting freedom, commerce, and privacy on the Internet."

Standing up to the FBI does not mean that the groups are "anti-law enforcement," Barr said yesterday. "I don't think the FBI should be able to dictate their technology simply because the FBI wants to make it easier to tap into the Net," he said.

A working group within the task force kicked off the debate last summer with an e-mail discussion of what features might be necessary to make the Internet comply with wiretap laws. Baker said the impetus for the discussion came not from the FBI but from the companies that make equipment used in telephone networks; those companies fretted that their products would have to comply with federal wiretap laws for telecommunications companies to buy them.

The debate has raged since then, with participants espousing views across the political spectrum. Some take a view that governments are inherently corrupt and wiretapping is evil; others have suggested that compliance with government demands for legal wiretap capabilities is inevitable, and that smooth functioning of the Internet will be best served by designing those capabilities in now instead of having them imposed by force at a later date.

The task force's job is "to minimize harm to the Net as people impose their requirements or work out their destinies on it," said Stewart Baker, a former general counsel for the National Security Agency whose clients now include communications and Internet companies grappling with wiretap issues. "I think nothing will come of it, and I think that's probably the right result at this stage."

In fact, the group is likely to vote tonight against building in the extra wiretapping capabilities, said one member of the task force, Scott O. Bradner of Harvard University. "The consensus on the mailing list has certainly been against the IETF participating in any special features," he said.

That action will almost certainly set the group on a collision course with law enforcement. The federal law that requires makers of high-tech telephone networks to design in wiretap capabilities--a law known as CALEA--specifically excluded the Internet. It was "one of the central compromises of CALEA," said James X. Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, who helped negotiate the law.

But FBI spokesman Barry Smith said that exception was written into the laws after Internet service providers promised to provide such capability, and said that pre-CALEA wiretap provisions of Title 18 of the U.S. Code require the companies to comply with legal wiretap requests.

Smith said those setting the standards should understand that federal wiretap laws do in fact require them to design in wiretap capabilities. "We have every confidence that the technical-standards-setting bodies will fulfill that statutory requirement," Smith said.

Baker said that the United States is not the only government that wants the Internet to be wiretap-friendly. "There's similar legislation driving this in other countries--and a lot more invasive than CALEA . . . whatever we do has to stand on a global stage," he said.