Senate Punts On Telecom Immunity

from the get-out-of-jail-free dept

Last night, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved wiretapping legislation. There's been quite a bit of confusion around the web about how the committee handled the most contentious issue: whether to grant telecom companies retroactive blanket immunity for violating their customers' privacy. It appears that after an effort to strip out the immunity language failed, the committee only referred part of the legislation out of committee, leaving the immunity provisions in limbo. The net effect will be to leave the issue to be decided by the full Senate, where we can be sure someone will offer an blanket immunity amendment. Sen. Specter, who is the leading Republican on the committee and has occasionally been critical of the Bush administration's civil liberties record, is apparently intending to offer a "compromise" that would have the government take the place of AT&T and Verizon in the privacy lawsuits now pending against them. Frankly, I have trouble seeing how this is a compromise. The problem with granting immunity liability is that it undermines the whole point of the fines, which is to give the companies an incentive to obey the law. If the government takes the telecom companies' place in the lawsuit, that saves them from paying any real penalty for breaking the law. As a result, they'll have no incentive to say no next time the executive branch asks them to do something illegal. If Congress wants the telecom industry to take the laws it writes seriously, then it has to insist that companies pay the penalty when they break them. Meanwhile, the House approved wiretapping legislation without an immunity clause. And the White House, for its part, has vowed to veto any legislation that doesn't include a get-out-of-jail-free card for the AT&T and Verizon. So there will almost certainly be a showdown, either between the House and the Senate, or between Congress and the White House.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Devang, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 12:45am

    Get your privacy violated, and get compensated via

    It's good to know privacy will be treated the same way as asbestos.

    This transferring of liability to tax-payers and outright denying liability cases to even enter courts has become quite the corporate moral hazard.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 4:48am

    It would be interesting to send the bill to the president as-is, wiretapping approval and no blanket immunity or liability proxy provision.

    What the president does would pretty much indicate how important the ability to wiretap really is. If he signs it then he really does consider the ability to wiretap necessary. If he doesn't then it shows that it's not really all that necessary but it's just something that they want to be able to do but that the telco immunity is what they consider critical.

    By not including the immunity, neither granting or rejecting, it removes any question as to what is really important or not. Personally I think that ALL bill should be voted on one by one. That would probably remove a lot of the special interest legislation that occurs since you couldn't hide it.

     

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  3.  
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    John Duncan Yoyo, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 5:28am

    Has the President taken the third option of just not signing a bill and letting it go into effect? It indicates his displeasure without wasting the time of the congress which it seems to need more of.

     

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  4.  
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    jake bell, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 5:37am

    If the wiretaps are illegal, why not go after the

    If the wiretaps in question are illegal, and the Administration has been involved with their execution, then why isn't the Congress going after the White House about it? If the actions were so illegal, like the Watergate break-in's, then where are the hearings and so forth? Why sue the telecoms when the real perpitrator is the Administration?
    It isn't that easy though. There is a major question as to the legality of the requests and the power of the Executive Branch in this situation and with the current laws in force (Patriot Act). The wiretaps are not as 'cut and dry' illegal as is portrayed in the post. If they were, you would see a major push against the Administration. What's happening is instead of taking on the Administration and the Patriot Act specifically, opponents of the policy are hoping to use 'friendly' courts to fine the telecoms for what, if taken directly to the Supreme Court, may be found legal. If the Democrats really had any guts they would go after the President and the Patriot Act directly and stop the legal tip-toeing around the issue. Don't count on it though, as there may be another terrorist incident before the elections and they don't want to get labeled 'soft on terror' around election time.

     

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  5.  
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    Killer_Tofu (profile), Nov 16th, 2007 @ 5:45am

    So Many Things

    I love the administration is so willing to veto anything that has the public's interests at heart. If it is not for the corporations, VETO.
    How much they care about us.

    1984, here we come. Or, have been heading there.

    And I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see another attack just before election time. I am not expecting one, but if one does happen, couldn't the other losers just point to it and say, "see how they have failed at protecting us". Double edged sword maybe?

     

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  6.  
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    DCX2, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 5:49am

    Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not go after

    Last I checked, the Fourth Amendment > Patriot Act.

    The wiretapping is illegal. Period. It is a felony to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant. Bush deserves impeachment.

    But nobody in power really cares. I think this whole telecom immunity bit is just a major distraction so people don't get in a fit about the fact that Congress is going to pass a law that doesn't jive with the Bill of Rights.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 5:58am

    Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not go after

    There is actually no question that the wiretapping actions of the administration are illegal. What is my source for that? Why, the Attorney General (before he forgot everything except his name) and the Director of National Intelligence. Those might be very partisan voices, but certainly not democratically partisan ones.

    The reason there has been no action is that Congress has given up on its oversight duties entirely. They ask for documentation of legality, the Administration says no, and they let it go at that. Is that a useful course for anyone? Absolutely not. Would further congressional investigative action be better? Of course it would.

    The reason for the telecom suits is that not everyone is satisfied by Congress giving up on its responsibilities, and that was the sole remaining avenue for redress of these grievances. I assure you, barring further change in the laws, these activities will not be found legal by the Supreme, or any other, court.

     

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  8.  
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    Jake Bell, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 6:09am

    Re: Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not go af

    You should have said 'my interpritation of the 4th amendment makes the Patriot Act' illegal. If the Patriot Act was so 'Illegal', why isn't anyone taking it to court? Again, you may find that it is legal, and that would be worse that the current situation where at least there is some visibilty on the actions of the Justice Department.


    This situation reminds me of the standoff between the Regan Administration and Congress over the 'Contras' and Nicaragua. Congress passed a law making that said the administration could not assist the 'contras'. Well, no one was ever charged under this 'law' because if it went to the Supreme Court it would have been thrown out as unconstitutional. All Congress could do is charge people with 'lying' to them.

     

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  9.  
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    Jake Bell, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 6:27am

    Re: Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not go af

    Again, if the Patriot Act is so 'illegal', why doesn't anyone take the Administration to court over it? 'Everyone' says the wiretaps are illegal, well then why isn't 'everyone' going after the Justice Department about it? In this discussion, nowhere has anyone questioned the statement 'the wiretaps are illegal'. I think that the Supreme Court may not agree that the wiretaps are illegal considering the current laws in force. If 'everyone' though the wiretaps were illegal, it wouldn't be an issue. It would be over, now. Were talking criminal action, with big names at the top. Until the legal nuances of the current situation are sorted out, or someone in Congress actually will stand up for something other that their own political future, nothing will change. Suing the telco's is a waste of time and detracts from the real issue, the Patriot Act. Congress had it's chance to squash the Patriot Act and they didn't.

     

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  10.  
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    Haywood, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 6:48am

    Re: Get your privacy violated, and get compensated

    Don't get me started on asbestos. It is a rock, it occurs naturally, the air in California is full of it naturally. They made a big deal out of nothing. Perhaps people in processing plants had some health problems, so do people in grain elevators. The asbestos legislation is one of the larger scams ever. Screwed up clutches and brakes for years, and just now we are finding materials that are acceptable substitutes.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 6:50am

    Re: Re: Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not g

    You should have said 'my interpritation of the 4th amendment makes the Patriot Act' illegal. If the Patriot Act was so 'Illegal', why isn't anyone taking it to court? Again, you may find that it is legal, and that would be worse that the current situation where at least there is some visibilty on the actions of the Justice Department.

    The reason that no one is taking the Patriot Act to court is due to everyone having one of two problems. The first is that, for many people (ISPs, library administrators, etc), to challenge this is to guarantee putting yourself in line for a felony arrest for saying that it affected you. Most people have a second problem, which is that they are unable to prove it has been used against them, and challenges to a law can only come from those wronged (or at least appearing to have been wronged) by it.

    This demonstrates why transparency in government is always a good thing. And, from the standpoint of keeping this law on the books, the Patriot Act was very well crafted to be as opaque as possible.

     

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  12.  
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    Killer_Tofu (profile), Nov 16th, 2007 @ 6:56am

    Re: Jake Bell

    People are taking it to court. Do try to keep up on the news in the area if you are going to make such claims.
    http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2003/08/59863
    And that is an old article.
    There have been many cases since then.
    http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/09/court-strikes-d.html
    http://blog.wired.com/27bstrok e6/2007/09/court-strikes-2.html
    http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/06/judge_orders_fb.html
    Yah I know that last one isn't entirely about people fighting the act, but it shows that there is still more going on about it.

    And this one to help break through Jake Bell's sugar coated world into reality.
    http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2006/09/what_it_feels_l.html

     

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  13.  
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    inc, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 6:57am

    where the hell is the judicial branch enforcing the constitution? The telcoms should pay and the executive branch should pay. If the congress passes those kind of laws then they should pay too. Last time I checked the government was for the people. People need to start by voting out their senators and representatives in mass and see how they start their changing tune.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 7:00am

    Re: Re: Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not g

    Again, if the Patriot Act is so 'illegal', why doesn't anyone take the Administration to court over it? 'Everyone' says the wiretaps are illegal, well then why isn't 'everyone' going after the Justice Department about it?

    And who would be able to take the Administration to court over it? I can't just go to a court and sue the government, asserting that this law is unconstitutional. The law (or, in this case, illegal situation) needs to have been used against me. You can't sue based on the potential for an illegal situation, you need to have been in one.

    The easy way for this to happen would be for the administration to bring charges against someone using information gained through warrantless wiretapping. So far, there hasn't been a single case of that. Which really ought to be everything you need to know as far as what the priority of the administration really is. If these were useful (in a legal sense), there would have been convictions by now because of them.

     

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  15.  
    identicon
    Tim Lee, Nov 16th, 2007 @ 8:12am

    Re: If the wiretaps are illegal, why not go after

    This isn't about the Patriot Act. This is a program that's not authorized by any law Congress has passed, and in fact what the telecoms have done is specifically barred by federal statute. So these lawsuits are simply about holding the telecoms accountable for breaking the law.

    The telecoms will of course have the opportunity to make the case that their actions were legal. But right now, they're taking the position that they shouldn't even have to defend themselves--that Congress should whitewash their actions without even knowing what they were.

     

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