Monday, October 8, 2007

In Which We Learn that the Rule of Law is Optional for Telecoms

As described in this article from Computer World, last week representatives from AT&T, Verizon and Quest appeared before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to explain how government agencies sought to obtain information on consumer telephone and Internet use. At first blush, this seems odd. After all, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is part of the House of Representatives - and it would seem that the most direct way for the House of Representatives to find out how some other government personnel were obtaining information would be to simply ask them. However, all is not as it seems with the committee hearings. First, instead of being hearings to rake the telecoms over the coals for violating the privacy of their customers, these hearings are essentially a pity party organized by AT&T (article on some of the behind the scenes maneuvering here) in support of passage retroactively immunizing telecoms for violating the privacy of their customers. So why would AT&T want retroactive liability for violating its customers' privacy? My guess is that AT&T's lawyers have told it that it's likely to lose its case against the electronic freedom foundation which is currently on appeal before the 9th Circuit (details on the ongoing case can be found here). So, where the lawyers fail, the lobbyists swing into action...and we learn that actually obeying the law is completely unnecessary if you have enough money to buy retroactive immunity.

As a note, I am aware that the ACLU, which is normally on the side of the angels when it comes to privacy, has spoken favorably on the house hearings (see, e.g., here). However, I'm still very skeptical. In support of my skepticism, I will cite the position of representative Dingell, who stated that the committee wanted to "examine the difficult position of the phone companies who may have been asked by the government to violate the privacy of their customers without the assurance of liability protections." To me, that sounds like a person who is preparing to step into defend the poor, oppressed telecoms, not a person who is about to exercise some oversight. It's possible that I could be wrong, but I'll wait till AT&T loses at the 9th circuit and no retroactive immunity is granted before I'll conclude that this hearing was about consumer privacy rather than protecting large corporations.

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