Civil liberties groups and public interest advocates have been urging Verizon and AT&T, the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, to be more forthcoming about user data requests made by the U.S. government for months. Recently, the companies’ shareholders joined the chorus demanding that Verizon and AT&T follow the example of the nation’s largest Internet giants, including Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, which all publish transparency reports.
It appears that Verizon has been listening. On Thursday, the $140 billion telecom titan announced that it will begin publishing an online report providing data on the number of law enforcement requests for customer information that the company receives in the U.S. and other countries. Verizon’s announcement comes one day after President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies recommended significant reforms at the National Security Agency, and constitutes the latest impact from the blockbuster disclosures delivered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“All companies are required to provide information to government agencies in certain circumstances,” Randal S. Milch, Verizon’s executive vice president for public policy and general counsel, said in a statement, “and this new report is intended to provide more transparency about law enforcement requests. Although we have a legal obligation to provide customer information to law enforcement in response to lawful demands, we take seriously our duty to provide such information only when authorized by law.”
Verizon said that its transparency report will identify the total number of law enforcement agency requests received from governments in criminal cases, to the extent permitted by law. The report will break out this data under categories such as subpoenas, court orders and warrants. The company said it is working with the U.S. government regarding the detail the company can report on the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) it receives. Verizon will become the first telecom company to issue such a report.
However, Verizon’s report will not separately disclose information about other national security requests received by the company, including orders made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the controversial law that facilitates many NSA programs. (NSLs are requests for communications records made directly by the FBI when the government is conducting national security investigations. Thus far, no company has been granted permission to separately disclose requests made under FISA.)
The largest Internet companies are waging a legal battle with the U.S. government to be more transparent about national security data requests, including those made under FISA. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) — a secret panel made up of 11 federal judges appointed by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts — asking for permission to disclose statistics about the nature and scope of government requests made under FISA. The Justice Department has opposed the companies’ petition.
In a statement, Verizon’s Milch alluded obliquely to the Snowden revelations. “In the past year, there has been greater focus than ever on the use of legal demands by governments around the world to obtain customer data,” he said. “Like others in the industry, the aim of our transparency report is to keep our customers informed about government requests for their data and how we respond to those requests. Verizon calls on governments around the world to provide more information on the types and amounts of data they collect and the legal processes that apply when they do so.”
Sarah Morris, Senior Policy Counsel at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, a public interest organization that has been leading the campaign for greater transparency with respect to U.S. surveillance programs, praised Verizon’s decision. “We’ve had our differences in the past with Verizon on issues such as net neutrality, but it looks like we are united in our belief that surveillance transparency reporting by telephone and Internet companies should be the norm going forward,” she said. “We hope that Verizon’s upcoming transparency report sets a strong standard for the telecom industry and that other telephone companies will soon follow suit and issue their own reports.”
Last month, shareholders filed a proposal asking AT&T and Verizon to be more transparent about government requests for user information, including demands made by the NSA under FISA. The New York State Common Retirement Fund, which manages $160.7 billion on behalf of more than one million state employees and retirees, is leading the effort, along with Trillium Asset Management, a Boston-based investment firm with more than $1.3 billion under management.
AT&T’s response was, in a word, “No.” In a letter sent to the Securities and Exchange Commission, AT&T said it wants to exclude the shareholder proposal from its next annual meeting because it pertains to “ordinary business operations” that are the purview of the company’s management and board, not rank and file shareholders. AT&T apparently wants to avoid what could be a heated debate at the company’s next annual meeting about its role in the government’s controversial national security surveillance programs.
In contrast, Verizon is moving proactively to plan the telecom industry’s first major transparency report. Jonas Kron, Senior Vice President and Director of Shareholder Advocacy for Trillium Asset Management, said his firm is “gratified that Verizon appears to have embraced the position that shareholders set out in a proposal filed in November.” In the coming weeks, AT&T will face intensifying pressure to follow Verizon’s lead. Already, there are signs that AT&T might soften its stance. Reached by TIME, AT&T spokesperson Mark A. Siegel offered the following comment: “While we have disclosed a lot of information in this area, we are always exploring ways to do more,” Siegel said.