by Timothy Lee
Thu, Nov 15th 2007 11:18pm
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.
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