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Telecom Companies Try to Buy Their Way Out of Trouble

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Created 03/10/2008 - 7:09pm

from: San Jose Mercury News [1]

Telecom Companies Try to Buy Their Way Out of Trouble

March 7, 2008
By Robert Jacobson

California’s biggest telephone companies are throwing their political weight around again. But this time the issue isn’t about yet more rate increases or competing with cable TV. It’s spying.

Two years ago, news reports revealed the existence of a secret program to monitor Americans’ phone conversations without a warrant. Although at least one company refused, many of the nation’s biggest telecoms played along, handing over call records in violation of customer agreements and state laws like California’s that protect our personal information.

I wrote that law, and 20 years ago the telecoms put their political muscle behind it. The Telephone Privacy Act stated that companies can’t turn over their customers’ call records to a third party, whether it’s a private company trolling for new customers or the government data-mining call logs without a warrant.

Now I’m a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union’s California affiliates that wants to hold the companies to their promise to their customers. I work as a technology consultant, and many of my calls are with entrepreneurs, whose currency is new ideas. If I can’t guarantee my customers’ privacy, I can’t do my job.

California’s telephone privacy law is clear: You can’t release a list of all the numbers someone has called without a court order. The phone companies supported it when they thought that hoarding their customers’ call records would give them commercial advantage in a more competitive telecom arena. They believed that our telephone privacy law would keep their business assets from falling into the hands of third parties, whether their competitors or the government.

Now the telecoms want retroactive immunity from nearly 40 lawsuits like mine that have been filed nationwide. Their defenders — former CIA chief James Woolsey, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and the president himself — say that without it companies in the future won’t cooperate with the government to keep our country safe. That’s the wrong principle. Corporate handouts reward bad behavior and encourage companies to ignore environmental, safety or privacy laws. And with their armies of Washington lobbyists and high-priced lawyers, these are hardly wild-eyed patriots.

When the government asked for records, they could have done what one major telecom executive did: ask for a warrant. They could have used their Washington influence to promote a wiretapping program that followed the constitutional prohibition against warrantless searches.

Instead, they stood aside as government agents kicked in Californians’ digital doors. They gambled with their customers’ trust and counted on their Washington connections to bail them out.

AT&T and Verizon, the defendants in the California lawsuit over their role in warrantless spying, have together given more than $1.5 million to congressional candidates in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Senate already passed a bill that includes immunity. The House, on the other hand, has resisted both immunity and expanded wiretaps that will sweep up countless Americans with no court oversight. But with competing versions of legislation approved, that kind of cash will be pretty persuasive.

Why is it important for Congress not to give in and shield telephone companies from public scrutiny and public interest lawsuits? If the phone companies are granted immunity, these suits will be thrown out. No one will ever know for sure whether the phone companies and the government broke the law or how extensive their violations were — and, perhaps, still are, for these abuses of the public trust may be ongoing even as the debate heats up in Congress.

Like the journalists, attorneys and clergy who are my co-plaintiffs, I’m looking for justice, not money. Where companies act illegally, they need to be held accountable. Enforcing privacy laws won’t make our country vulnerable. And it might make companies think twice before they shred their privacy policies.

My experience with the phone companies shows that they don’t act in the country’s — or even their customers’ — interest. When the telecoms come calling, our House members need to be ready to answer: We don’t grant special favors.

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