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Telecom Companies Implicated in NSA Spying Unite to Lobby Congress on Digital Privacy

Former lobbyist and former Rep. Mary Bono Mack. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The biggest names in telecommunications industry have launched a new lobbying group headed by two Washington insiders to advocate for privacy policies that could affect millions of consumers nationwide.

Dubbed the 21st Century Privacy Coalition, the group will represent AT&T, Verizon, DirectTV, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and CITA-The Wireless Association. The group is led by Jon Leibowitz, the recently departed chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and former lobbyist, and former Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican who raked in thousands of dollars of donations from the telecom industry before leaving Congress last year.

The coalition received some brief media coverage in late June thanks in part to Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who remains exiled from the United States after revealing to the world that the National Security Agency (NSA) operates massive global surveillance programs that include the collecting of millions of phone records from Verizon and other major US phone service providers.

Surveillance of American’s phone records has occurred under the Bush and Obama administrations. The NSA illegally sought records from telecom companies as early as February 2001, about seven months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that prompted heightened surveillance and security measures nationwide, according to recent statements made by the former CEO of the communications firm Qwest.

Coalition spokesman Jeff Mortier told Truthout that the 21st Century Privacy Coalition started to come together before the Snowden leaks and it was simply “interesting timing.” He said the group is interested in advocating for uniform “data breach and data security” regulations across the telecom industry.

Telecom watchdogs, however, already are warning about the power that the 21st Century Privacy Coalition could wield in Washington at a time when privacy in the digital age is up for national debate.

Tim Karr, a policy analyst at the communications watchdog group Free Press, tweeted after the coalition went public that AT&T launching a privacy coalition is like “Ted Nugent” launching “wildlife coalition.” Later, Karr told Truthout that the lobbying group is likely to fight for profit margins before consumer rights.

“The reality is that AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have never put consumers first, and their interests are in serving their bottom line,” Karr said. ” … If that just so happens to help consumers, then maybe it will have the appearance of that.”

In the 2011-12 campaign season, Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner Cable each donated $10,000 to Mack’s campaign committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. AT&T gave Mack a total of $80,250 of donations during her time in Congress and ranks second on her overall list of donors.

In 2005, another whistleblower, Mark Klein, revealed that AT&T was handing over communications records of millions of Americans to the NSA.

A spokeswoman for the FaegreBD group, Mack’s consulting firm, told Truthout that the former congresswoman did not want to comment on what kind of digital privacy policies the coalition will be advocating for.

Before leading the FTC, the powerful anti-trust agency, Leibowitz lobbied for the Motion Picture Association of America, another long-time donor to Mack’s campaigns.

“So they’ve identified a very powerful and experienced Washington player … to lead this effort, so that telecommunications companies can lobby on behalf of themselves as more and more people in Washington start to address privacy concerns,” Karr said.

Mortier said the 21st Century Privacy Coalition already is preparing to advocate in Congress and will participate in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on privacy and digital security issues on Thursday. Consumers are accessing the Internet on a variety of platforms, Mortier said, and the coalition will advocate for rules and regulations that apply uniformly to broadcasters, Internet and wireless providers.

The coalition has registered two lobbyists with the House of Representatives, according to the Sunlight Foundation.