Sunday, January 27, 2008

Immunity for Spying Telecoms: Not Just to Cover Bush's Ass

Tomorrow debate resumes on the new FISA bill to replace the Protect America Act, which expires Friday. The Protect America Act, if you didn't know, gave George W. Bush six months of authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps on American citizens for whatever reason he sees fit to give. George W. Bush has promised to veto any replacement bill which does not give immunity from lawsuit to any of the telecomm companies who have cooperated with the Bush Administration in the spy operation during the period when it was NOT authorized by the Protect America Act- when, in short, it was a blatant violation of the FISA laws and the Fourth Amendment.

The odds are very good that the Democrats will fragment, with enough crossing the aisle to give the President what he wants rather than be seen as "weak on terrorism."

It's been said time and again by the pundits that the lawsuits against AT&T, Verizon, and other telecomm corporations are pretty much the last chance to find the smoking gun to prove George W. Bush's criminal activity as President. As such, the Bush White House wants immunity for one purpose: to prevent their lord and master from being impeached while in office or prosecuted in criminal court once out of office.

But this new item out Friday opens up a new aspect of this scandal. It seems AT&T wants to spy on its users' Internet use for its own purposes- not for any national security advantage.

Consider: what happens if the immunity provisions are passed intact by the Senate, as they already have been in the House version of the bill? The immunity won't just be retroactive- it'll be total. Congress will make it impossible for anyone to sue to prevent their Internet provider or the telecomm corporation that owns any part of the network from violating their privacy. The telecomms will be able to monitor all Internet traffic for content- the first vital step on the road to regulating and censoring the Internet for content.

This is by no means new. Recently retired AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, who once told stockholders he intended to re-create the old Ma Bell monopoly on all electronic communications, made clear his wishes to screen out content providers who didn't pay a toll for access to AT&T users. His replacement, Randall Stephenson, is even more determined to make his wires pay-for-play. Whitacre, as CEO of AT&T, was a major supporter of Bush and the Republican Party. The ultimate goal, of course, is to return the Internet to its pre-1995 state: domination by a handful of online companies with limited services, content strictly controlled by those services, and virtually no crossover from one service to another.

Heretofore their efforts have been stymied by Net Neutrality activists, the remnants of common-carrier laws (gutted by Bush and his Republican Congress), and certain of their Internet competition such as Google. The lawsuits pending over the illegal NSA spying program, if they end in defeat for the telcomms, could set the firm precedent that telecomms have no right to restrict content on their networks, any more than they have the right to eavesdrop on private telephone calls.

Such rulings wouldn't just cost the telcomms massive amounts of money in damages. They wouldn't just expose George W. Bush for the lying, power-mad dictator he is. They would knock the idea of an Internet censored by corporate extortion and intimidation in the head, kill it deader than the XFL.

So count on the telecomms to lean heavily on every candidate they've donated campaign funds to, and don't count on them to settle out of court if they lose their fight in the Senate. This isn't just about politics: this is about naked, boundless greed.

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