Verizon has learned plenty from its close relationship with government intelligence agencies. Its recent response to a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request in New York is almost completely composed of black ink. Full pages, three hundred of them, are redacted, with little more than headers and descriptions remaining.
As Elise Ackerman points out at Forbes, this might be a violation of the state's Freedom of Information law.
As the court ruled in a 1996 case known as Gould versus the New York City Police Department, the Freedom of Information Law imposes a broad duty on government to make records available. All government records are thus “presumptively open for public inspection” unless they fall into specific exemptions which must be “narrowly construed.”
The ruling continues: “In keeping with these settled principles, blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to the Freedom of Information Law’s policy of open government. Instead, to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate ‘particularized and specific justification’ for not disclosing requested documents.”
The documents are currently under review to see if the redacted information falls under protections governing trade secrets. It might. A large part of what's being sought here is information that many other telcos and wireless providers would find very interesting.
In September, a group of consumer advocates interceded in a proceeding Verizon had initiated with the New York Public Service Commission to shut down its traditional network, known as the “wireline” network. The advocates were interested in reviewing documents Verizon had filed with the commission about its wireline and wireless build-outs.
Under the state Freedom of Information Law, advocates requested that Verizon provide information about the actual costs and expenses associated with the repair, upkeep and maintenance of the traditional wireline network on the resort community of Fire Island. Among other things, advocates also wanted to know the location of any planned or active offering of Verizon’s wireless Voice Link service in other parts of New York.
Verizon has redacted almost everything requested. While its claims that this information would be extremely beneficial to its competitors are undoubtedly true, that's likely not the only motivation.
Ever since Hurricane Sandy, Verizon has been extremely reluctant to restore services to prior levels. Karl Bode at DSLreports has collected story after story
detailing Verizon's efforts to dodge the demands of its paying customers
Verizon has slowly been expanding the number of Sandy victims they're informing will never see their DSL lines repaired. Fire Island, New York residents who lost service during Sandy haven't had broadband service since last October, and only recently were told that these lines simply won't be repaired…
Instead of power-outage-resilient copper voice and DSL lines, users are pushed toward Verizon's Voice Link, which offers voice service over Verizon's wireless network -- but no data connectivity of any kind.
Before capitulating in September and offering FIOS service on Fire Island
(where the most service was lost), Verizon used the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy as an out to switch users to the wireless service it (along with AT&T) would rather be selling anyway
-- one with both
Understandably, New York residents would like to know just how much it's costing Verizon to roll out FIOS, as well as how much it's receiving in insurance payouts compared to the cost of restoring service to its previous levels. Unfortunately, it seriously looks as though these groups will never get the answers they're seeking.
But it's not just costs and insurance details that Verizon's redacting. It's also other, less sensitive, information.
Among other documents, Verizon claimed as a “trade secret” a list of Voice Link deployments, a Voice Link leader’s guide and a document about overcoming customers’ objections to Voice Link and responding to requests to return to copper.
While this may be proprietary information, there's nothing in those documents that couldn't be disseminated with a small amount of redaction. But Verizon is in no hurry to make this info public, considering it would reveal the same talking points it deployed against those behind the FOIL request.
Richard Brodsky, the lawyer representing the many groups seeking this information, claims the data requested is vital to verifying Verizon's statements concerning its decision to not repair existing copper lines.
“We believe that Verizon has substantially misstated the economic realities of both the wireline and the wireless service in order to make the wireline service seem economically damaged,” Brodsky said. “And we believe that the wireless service that they want to substitute does not give telephone consumers what they are legally required to get and what they expect.” Specifically, Brodsky said, Voice Link, which continues to be offered to customers in parts of New York and New Jersey, is voice-only, when many customers need both voice and data services.
That Verizon has a vested interest in pushing people to a service that's cheaper to build out and maintain won't have any bearing on the commission's consideration of its "trade secrets" claim. Unfortunately, in order to prevent FOI laws from becoming tools for corporations to acquire information from their rivals, the commission will probably have to side with Verizon. Verizon knows this and has been busy using the "trade secret" clause as leverage to press the state to allow it to provide even less
information in response to requests than it already does.
As it stands now, Verizon will probably be able to walk away from this request with its "trade secrets" intact, much to the detriment of those who suspect the service provider is simply exploiting Hurricane Sandy to push preferred services on customers who have no choice in the matter. This allows the company to both maximize its profits by routing existing customers to a higher margin (and lower utility) service and drastically cut its outlays by allowing it to walk away from repairing damaged lines.