Verizon’s Selective Regard for Customer Privacy

There’s been a number of stories recently about the potential for telecom companies to begin filtering all internet content to search for copyright violations, a move that would assist the entertainment industry police digital piracy. Early indication was that AT&T and others would also be filtering content for illegal or immoral material. In short, it’s a horrible idea that involves a complete invasion of privacy by telecom companies.

Thomas Mennecke of Slyck and Brad Reed of Network World had a good piece on the story when it broke. Joel Johnson of BoingBoing Gadgets took a shot at AT&T when he found out about this too.

Apparently, though, not all the big telecoms are going to go along for the ride. In an interview with the New York Times‘ Saul Hansell, Verizon VP Thomas Tauke says his company doesn’t want to participate in this kind of internet filtering, for a variety of self-interested and other reasons. One that caused me to raise my eyebrow throw the ceiling and quickly up six floors to the roof of my building: customer privacy.

“Anything we do has to balance the need of copyright protection with the desire of customers for privacy.”

This is the same company that turned over millions of its customers private records to the NSA. Recall the USA Today broke the story of this database in spring 2006.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

At the time the story broke, Verizon offered no comment beyond they follow the law and try to protect customer privacy. They are now facing an unknown number of civil cases, presumably for this and other violations of customer privacy and eavesdropping laws. Not all telecom companies complied with

Verizon’s sentiment on this matter is certainly correct. I don’t think we want any of the big telecoms filtering the internet in an effort to track down copyrighted, illegal, or immoral content. But it’s a fantasy to think Verizon has a genuine regard for their customers’ privacy. They’ve disregarded privacy concerns at the behest of the Bush administration, without proper court order for years. They’ve lobbied the Senate heavily to try to secure retroactive immunity for their law breaking and pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaign war chests this cycle.

While I welcome Verizon’s new desire to ensure customer privacy, I have to presume that it is their desire to avoid incurring costs for liability for copyright violations that motivates them here. Draping themselves in the concern for privacy is disingenuous at best and a slap in the face of anyone who has watched them partner with the Bush administration to violate the rights and liberties of Americans over the last seven years.

(Hat tip to Brett Schenker for alerting me to the story)

Update:

Martin Bosworth at Scholars & Rogues has more thoughts on Verizon’s new-found regard for customer privacy. He’s been writing a lot about the AT&T filtering the internet story and is a very good resource for people who want more information about this.

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