AT&T: Accuse them, attack them, hijack their merger hearings to scold them, but this hard-bitten telecom remains unmoved
The new company policy applies to internet and video services, but AT&T’s timing and explicit assertions of data ownership leave something to be desired. Or is it ... admired?
Admittedly, the Current is not a linguistics or legal expert, but it was obvious from the language and assertive tone that the new policy set out to dispel any childish privacy pipe-dreams customers may have had: “While your Account Information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T.” You never talked to customers like that in the old policy, AT&T. You used to be cool. What happened to you? San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Lazarus wrote last month that this was a significant departure from the previous policy, and gives AT&T all kinds of latitude to share customers’ personal data with the government.
The nonprofit TRUSTe (slogan: “Make privacy your choice”) monitors privacy policies and practices, and has certified the new AT&T policy as OK (AT&T pays them to use their TRUSTe web-privacy seal). “They’re telling people what can happen to consumers `through` government intervention. So consumers can make `an` informed choice to not do business with AT&T or to do business and call their congressman,” said TRUSTe’s Toma Szewski. And as far as the NSA scandal, don’t blame AT&T: They were just responding to the “legal process,” as stated in their policy. “Whether or not NSA should have that right `to demand consumer records` is a political question,” Szewski said. “Now we’ve got this debate, and AT&T is part of it.” Thanks AT&T!
“The contrast that I’m trying to draw for you is: If I, Walt Sharp, register for the advanced services on your site ... I have no statement that my email, phone, address won’t be sold. Which do you prefer?”
Touché. This telecom is big and ballsy (the No. 1 big-softies company of its kind). There aren’t many (non-federal) entities that can manage such privacy-intrusion fallout.
Scott Moritz, the telecom-market reporter for Thestreet.com, said AT&T stock hasn’t been negatively affected by the NSA scandal and lawsuits. How does AT&T do it? By saying and taking responsibility for as little as possible, and by standing behind that shadowy body, the Bush administration, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the ACLU. His organization is a plaintiff in two suits that accuse AT&T of sharing information without legal authorization.
“Nobody knows for sure `what they’ve handed over`, but AT&T’s never attempted to deny anything,” he said. “We have the worst of both worlds: an oppressive government that employed the private sector to do its bidding and also a secretive government ... where nothing can be discussed, even with members of Congress.”
Steinhardt’s probably sore because the Justice Department is claiming “state secrets” and trying to get ACLU’s cases thrown out. But with everything on the down-low, watchdogs and other information providers fenced in by the War on Terror have had to rely on whistleblowers, or guess at all the facts, Steinhardt said. That’s why the USA Today article that named the big telecoms as government collaborators got it half wrong.
Surely you heard about that paper’s summer thriller, The NSA Spies Who Loved Phone Records (not a real headline)? Well, last month, the country’s largest newspaper made a partial retraction, saying it could not confirm that Verizon Communications Inc. or BellSouth Corp., the nation’s No. 2 and No. 3 telecom companies, respectively, were helping the NSA build a giant database of America’s phone calls, as the paper had alleged in a May 11 story. (It’s been reported that, from jumpstreet, the No. 4 company, Qwest, refused warrantless government requests.)
Notice how USA Today did not retract its allegations against one seemingly indestructible, steel-toothed, telecommunications giant, whom, henceforth, we will call “Jaws” (a Bond allusion; but a fish on a feeding frenzy might better characterize a company that’s constantly consolidating — if they didn’t, would they die? They recently combined with SBC, then there’s the pending $67-billion merger with BellSouth, an old Jaws appendage — it was one of the seven original Baby Bells that the parent company nurtured for more than 100 years until the monopoly was split. Jaws suffered from phantom limb a long time.)
Funny thing about that merger. Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the new Beltway poster-boy for increased congressional oversight of the NSA, took a recent subcommittee hearing for the Jaws merger as an opportunity to spar with Jaws’ CEO Edward E. Whitacre Jr. over customer privacy.
Did Jaws hand over phone records, like USA Today said?
“The privacy of our customers is utmost and we follow the law.” Whitacre replied. The senator asked again, and Whitacre said again and again, the Cox News service reported, “We follow the law.”
“I think that answer is contemptuous of this committee,” Specter fumed, adding later, “You and I will talk about this further.”
You can imagine that America will eventually discuss the post-9/11 protections afforded citizens and consumer-data control further, too, if that old Winston Churchill quote holds true: “Count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”