AT&T Attempts to Stifle Shareholders on Illegal Government Monitoring of Communications

AT&T’s reaction to illegal government monitoring is quite different from that of Internet companies.

In drastic contrast to the steps Internet companies are taking to deter illegal government monitoring of communications, AT&T wants to silence its concerned shareholders on the issue. The shareholder proposal, submitted by the New York State Common Retirement Fund and other AT&T shareholders, calls for the company to publish semi-annual reports on U.S. and foreign government information requests. The reports would omit proprietary information and be subject to existing laws. The New York Times reported on Friday that on Thursday AT&T sent a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requesting that it could leave the shareholder proposal off its proxy statement.

Shareholders would be able to vote on the measure at AT&T’s 2014 annual meeting but management does not want the proposal on the table. The letter stated, ”Management is in the best position to determine what policies and procedures are necessary to protect customer privacy, to ensure compliance with applicable legal and regulatory requirements in the states and countries in which we operate, and to apprise AT&T customers of the steps that are taken to protect their privacy.” After recent revelations about Internet and telecommunications probing by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other U.S. agencies, a father knows best stance is debatable and somewhat insulting.

Among other things, AT&T argues that management can throw out the proposal since it does not focus on a significant policy issue, relates to ongoing litigation and relates to its “ordinary business operations.” AT&T told the SEC in the letter that it is not practical to let shareholders decide on those issues at an annual meeting. Since the news articles cited in the shareholders’ proposal were published after June 2013, management argued further, the issue “has not been raised to the level of ‘consistent topic of widespread public debate,’ i.e. ‘sustained public debate over the last several years.’” AT&T has been under public scrutiny for collaborating with illegal government snooping many times in the past. A civil liberties lawsuit in 2006 alleged that by tapping into AT&T’s network the NSA had illegally collected phone records.

The letter was sent the day after a Microsoft blog post on Wednesday stated the company would expand encryption across its services, reinforce legal protections for its customers’ data and make its code more transparent to prevent backdoor snooping by government agencies. Google discloses the number of government requests for data that it has received every six months along with the nature of the requests. Last month, Yahoo said it would offer encrypting for all of its data. Twitter also issues reports about government information requests. The internet companies are pressing the government for more information on its electronic surveillance, while AT&T is working hard to stifle their shareholders and relying on the short attention span of the public.  

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