David Lazarus of the San Francisco Chronicle has the details:
The new policy says that AT&T -- not customers -- owns customers' confidential info and can use it "to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."
The policy also indicates that AT&T will track the viewing habits of customers of its new video service -- something that cable and satellite providers are prohibited from doing.
The company's policy overhaul follows recent reports that AT&T was one of several leading telecom providers that allowed the National Security Agency warrantless access to its voice and data networks as part of the Bush administration's war on terror.
The new version, which is specifically for Internet and video customers, is much more explicit about the company's right to cooperate with government agencies in any security-related matters -- and AT&T's belief that customers' data belongs to the company, not customers.AT&T also makes use of a legal classification that is familiar to anyone who's followed the company's fight to elude payment of cable franchise agreements: the company says it can turn consumer viewing and Internet records over to the goverment because it is an "information service."
"While your account information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T," the new policy declares. "As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."
It says the company "may disclose your information in response to subpoenas, court orders, or other legal process," omitting the earlier language about such processes being "required and/or permitted by law."
The new policy states that AT&T "may also use your information in order to investigate, prevent or take action regarding illegal activities, suspected fraud (or) situations involving potential threats to the physical safety of any person" -- conditions that would appear to embrace any terror-related circumstance.
"It's obvious that they are trying to stretch their blanket pretty tightly to cover as many exposed bits as possible," he said.
Gail Hillebrand, a staff attorney at Consumers Union in San Francisco, said the declaration that AT&T owns customers' data represents the most significant departure from the company's previous policy.
"It creates the impression that they can do whatever they want," she said. "This is the real heart of AT&T's new policy and is a pretty fundamental difference from how most customers probably see things."
The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 stipulates that cable and satellite companies can't collect or disclose information about customers' viewing habits.
The law is silent on video services offered by phone companies via the Internet, basically because legislators never anticipated such technology would be available.
AT&T's Britton said the 1984 law doesn't apply to his company's video service because AT&T isn't a cable provider. "We are not building a cable TV network," he said. "We're building an Internet protocol television network."