Big softies

AT&T: Accuse them, attack them, hijack their merger hearings to scold them, but this hard-bitten telecom remains unmoved

Give AT&T its props. Who else would dare introduce a pioneering new privacy policy saying that they own customer data — serendipitously — after civil-liberties superfriends (ACLU, the Austin Chronicle, Studs Terkel, etc.) filed lawsuits claiming AT&T participated in a domestic-phone-and email-spying program in violation of state laws that say confidential information is owned by the consumer? And after all that “government collaborator” media attention, too?

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?

“`The new privacy policy` became effective mid-June,” said senior spokesman Walt Sharp from San Antonio’s AT&T headquarters. “The revisions were underway for many months.” Sharp said the policy update was made in anticipation of a mega-merger with BellSouth, which still awaits Washington’s approval; it was also a response to new video services the telecommunications company is rolling out. Sharp insists the revision makes no “material” updates to its 2004 policy, and had nothing to do with the NSA hullabaloo and holler.

“The interpretation is the same as a previous policy, and that is: We do not share or sell customer information for marketing purposes. We do comply with legal requests.” Sharp provided the Current with the old “Classic AT&T” privacy policy for a taste-test against the updated policy (available on the web).

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.

“No one’s been bold enough to say it this way before,” Lazarus said. “They gave that policy real legs.” There’s also a section that says accepting the privacy policy is a condition for service. Lazarus says he believes that the policy was crafted to allow continued information sharing, and protect AT&T from future consumer-protection lawsuits (though the new policy mentions nothing about being retroactive or including phone services). Oh, Lazarus! You’re the kind of Doubting Thomas that wouldn’t believe Tupac was alive, even if he released an album this year that gave a topical shout out to “my n***a Kenneth Lay, rest in peace!” (It’s this kind of AT&T-skeptical reporting that led the company to kill a multi-million-dollar ad account with the Chronicle, John Battelle, one of the co-founders of Wired magazine, wrote in a blog).

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!

Sharp, the AT&T spokesman, asked the Current to keep one thing in mind as it wrote this piece: AT&T, the nation’s largest provider of broadband, video, phone, wireless, and data services, has a very prominent privacy policy displayed on its website; a noble disclosure indeed, when you consider the free city weekly you now read does not have a privacy policy on its website, assuring our online subscribers and guest-registry signers (we’ve got millions!) that we won’t hand over their emails to marketers or feds making demands without a warrant.

“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, 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.”

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