Dumb As A Telco . . .

Laura Rozen asks the blunt question: “Is Congress so venal and inept as to not fully learn and explain what is going on with telcos helping the government snoop on their constituents’ phone calls more than a year after this article came out?” Obviously, rhetorical.

Thoreau over at Unqualified Offerings notes the high stench, too. Jack Balkin reminds the Hill, “It’s the Secrecy, Stupid!”

What can the Stiftung say? We are dealing with institutions literally dumber than a brontosaur. Specifically, we have represented a telco or three in our time. Including during the digital wiretap (CALEA) process in the mid-1990s. Nothing above re the NSA is any different than the behind the doors situation during the CALEA period, Jerry Berman and CDT libertarian posturing notwithstanding. Although, the CALEA process at least was out in the open, while per Jack Balkin’s pithy observation, the new program was all done in secrecy.

re CALEA all the telcos cared about in the end was either avoiding new burdens or making sure they got paid for them. Same with Lucent and the switch makers. Sure, they resented FBI intrusions into ‘the cage’ — there is alot of monolithic/monopolistic territoriality that comes into play on both sides. Sure, they resented FBI attempts to outsource R&D on to them. But those internal conversations had zero to do with the public posturing and civil liberties, etc. All that complaining about ‘FBI punchlists’ etc. really came down to was to lock the FBI into clear lines for monetization and recoupment. We are confident the NSA situation played out pretty much the same.

We’ve never seen a telco — and we have represented all of them except the (formerly)MCI and Sprint competitive entry crowd (what’s left of it) — draw a line in the sand on constitutional grounds. Or walk away from contracts. Until Qwest.

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Anyone from the computer industry’s early days remembers the refrain “nothing dumber than a telco.” Over the years, it’s still true. Oh sure, the TV ads are hipper. But the DNA hasn’t changed much. In the early 1990s, 1/3 the Amazon rain forest was cut for telco lawyers fighting cable lawyers over ‘video dial tone’ proceedings and many other meaningless regulatory posturings. And so on. With the 1996 Telecom Act, the telcos were determined to fight the 1983/84 AT&T break-up and preserve LATA and Inter-LATA financial structures, voice calling plans and strategies while the Internet loomed on the horizon like a tidal wave.

At the time (1996/1997) the Stiftung was in a position to be with a small, elite team to advise Ivan et al. and others to abandon voice and long distance as quickly as possible. They would soon be commodities — the future was digital traffic, maximizing revenue and transactions per unit. It was like telling a triceratops in Mexaco to look up at this big flaming ball coming down from the sky. That most of them rolled over for the National Security State is no surprise.

The Congress of Peoples’ Deputies’ spinelessness goes hand in hand. Which leaves the Nation in a weird political moment. None of its political institutions are capable of taking effective action to satisfy concerns seemingly of any real constituency. One cannot help but wonder how long this state of affairs can last.

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[Update] See new item at Unqualified Offerings discussing new WaPo story on Verizon’s 2005 unhesitant compliance with government expansive inquiries. La plus ca change . . .