Maine Phone Privacy Case Still Alive - For Now

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
June 26, 2008 12:00 am

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Senate Vote on Surveillance Bill Delayed Until July


Maine’s privacy complaint against Verizon got a reprieve Thursday as the Senate delayed legislation that would have given the phone companies immunity from litigation on the issue.

The bill, HR 6304, would end the privacy complaint that was originally filed in 2006 by Mainers after revelations about the phone companies’ complicity with the warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency. Section 803 of the bill would explicitly prevent states from investigating the phone companies’ actions. The bill, which passed the House last week, would let the phone companies off the hook simply by obtaining statements from the Attorney General that they were asked to provide the information.

“The Senate now has a golden opportunity to reject this disastrous bill, which places the telephone companies and the Bush Administration above the law,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “Mainers should use the Fourth of July recess to remind Senators Collins and Snowe that we value the Fourth Amendment right to privacy.”

Strong objections to the bill by Sen. Russ Feingold and others have stalled its march through the Congress. When Congress returns, Senators Feingold and Dodd will offer an amendment to strip the bill of the provisions granting immunity to the phone companies. The MCLU intends to use the Fourth of July recess to urge the Maine Senators to vote in favor of the Dodd and Feingold amendments.

The fruit of back-room deal-making between the Administration and Congressional leadership from both parties, HR 6304 would broaden the government’s surveillance powers in a far reaching expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It would permit the government to conduct vast, generalized surveillance, without any individual review or finding of wrongdoing. Since 1978, FISA has provided a mechanism for secret court review of government surveillance requests, but the Bush Administration chose to circumvent even those requirements in its domestic spying program, which was first revealed in 2005.

“This bill would permanently undermine our Fourth Amendment right to privacy and our First Amendment right to free speech without the government listening in,” said Bellows. “The government should not be able to monitor every phone call and e-mail between an American and a family member living overseas without a warrant.”

Under this bill, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would only review general procedures for the gathering of the information. The court may not know who, what or where will actually be tapped. H.R. 6304 further mocks meaningful court review by permitting the government to continue surveillance programs even if the application is denied by the court during the appeals process.

The Maine case against Verizon began in May, 2006, when 22 residents filed a privacy complaint against the company with the state Public Utilities Commission. The federal government sued to stop the investigation. That lawsuit is one of dozens against the phone companies that have been consolidated into a single proceeding before a California Federal Court.

The Maine lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, only an end to the telephone companies’ cooperation with the government’s domestic surveillance program.

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