When I found out that AT&T and Verizon have been handing over information about millions of customers’ calls to the National Security Agency (NSA) I was outraged. Secret, unchecked surveillance is antithetical to democracy, and the government is going too far. As the nation’s primary defender of civil liberties, the ACLU has sued the government and is leading the charge to reform our surveillance laws.
The board of directors of the ACLU of Northern California also felt that we had to take action, a different kind of action that we have rarely taken in our 80-year history: we filed a shareholder proposal — one with AT&T and one with Verizon. As customers, shareholders, and citizens, we all deserve to know what is done with our personal information. That is why the ACLU of Northern California, along with several other investors, have called on both companies to break their silence and publish transparency reports that detail how often they share information with U.S. or foreign governments and what type of customer information is shared.
Revelations about NSA spying, including corporate cooperation by both telecommunications and Internet companies, have spurred massive global press coverage, hearings in the U.S. Congress and in legislatures around the world, and widespread calls for reform. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called the NSA surveillance program “a breach of international law.” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has said, “I have to believe the civil liberties of millions of American have been violated.”
Customer trust is critical for any business, but especially for Internet and telecommunications companies that gather personal data concerning and affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. In an effort to help rebuild consumer trust, major Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Yahoo! have issued transparency reports with information on government requests; AT&T and Verizon have not. Companies, including Google and Microsoft, have also filed in court seeking authorization to disclose further information to the public; AT&T and Verizon have not.
Privacy is fundamental to democracy and free expression — and transparency is essential if individuals and businesses are to make informed decisions regarding their personal information. AT&T and Verizon must comply with legal obligations imposed by the Patriot Act and other laws. But these companies have no good excuse for staying silent and failing to provide information about how often customer information is being shared with the government. To the contrary, staying silent as other industry leaders release transparency reports and take steps to reinforce a genuine commitment to privacy makes it appear that these companies have something to hide and presents serious financial and reputational risks. Consumers prefer companies whose information practices they know and can trust. It is already estimated that the risks of surveillance and lack of trust could cost the U.S cloud computing industry $21 billion to $35 billion in foreign business over the next three years. The Chief Privacy Officers at AT&T and Verizon have praised transparency as a goal, but it is time to back up those statements with action by releasing transparency reports.
We are pleased to have co-filed the AT&T proposal with The New York State Common Retirement Fund and Trillium Asset Management LLC, and the Verizon proposal with Trillium Asset Management LLC, Park Foundation, and CleanYield Asset Management. We hope that other shareholders will join the effort. It’s time for AT&T and Verizon to tell the public what is happening to our personal information.