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US: ACLU Raises Surveillance as Issue in Big Phone Merger

by Ken BelsonThe New York Times
June 5th, 2006

The American Civil Liberties Union asked the Federal Communications Commission yesterday to withhold approval of AT&T's acquisition of BellSouth until it reviews allegations that the companies gave customer records to the government without warrants.

In its filing, the A.C.L.U. cited a provision in the Telecommunications Act that says that in considering a merger, the commission must "weigh the public-interest harms of the proposed transaction against the potential public-interest benefits."

The group said the F.C.C. should determine if AT&T and BellSouth handed over phone records to the National Security Agency's surveillance program and, if so, whether that violated any privacy laws.

The A.C.L.U. action comes after USA Today reported last month that AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon provided the agency with call records on millions of Americans in surveillance done after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The F.C.C. is in a position to determine whether the USA Today story is true and can bring the companies to the table and figure out whether they are providing customer information to the N.S.A. and what is the lawful authority for doing so," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project at the A.C.L.U.

Kevin J. Martin, the F.C.C. chairman, said last month that the commission could not investigate reports of the companies' cooperation with the security agency because the agency's activities were classified.

Mr. Martin made the statement in response to a letter from Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, the ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. At that time, however, the matter was not linked to AT&T's deal for BellSouth, which was announced in March.

Tamara Lipper, an F.C.C. spokeswoman, declined to comment on the filing.

Selim Bingol, an AT&T spokesman, said, "We don't have anything to say without having seen the paperwork." He also said, "We are vigorous protectors of our customers' privacy and when we're asked to help law enforcement agencies, we do so strictly within the law."

BellSouth has denied providing phone records to the security agency and said the A.C.L.U.'s request did not affect the company. "The claims made in the USA Today story about BellSouth are false, so any assertions by the A.C.L.U. would be moot for BellSouth," said Jeff Battcher, a company spokesman.

In its letter to the commission, the A.C.L.U. noted that BellSouth had denied participating in the surveillance program. But it voiced concern about what would happen if the company linked up to AT&T.

"It would be a cruel irony if BellSouth had not participated in the program but as a result of this merger, BellSouth customers became unwilling surveillance targets," it said.





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