Almost exactly a year ago, the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) stepped up to guard Mainers’ privacy and phone records from Verizon — or at least to find out whether or not said privacy was in danger.
The telecom company was among those called out for possibly giving its customers’ international calling records to the National Security Agency. Unsurprisingly, Verizon objected to the PUC’s investigation, and the US Justice Department wasted no time in stalling the PUC’s investigation, claiming in a federal-court filing that it stepped on Washington's toes.
But last week, a federal court in California begged to differ.
In a ruling that dismissed two of the government’s rationales for barring such investigations (and, for now, put off deciding on the third), the court across the country gave Verizon customers, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, and interested parties from five other states, hope that they may eventually have their questions answered.
The federal government had hoped to convince the court that by inquiring about the phone records, the PUC — a state entity — was infringing on a matter of federal jurisdiction. It also hoped to prove that the PUC was in effect messing with foreign policy (an area where the federal government has sole control). On both counts, it was shot down.
“Although the pertinent state disclosure orders ... relate to federal government activities, they do not regulate the government directly,” the court order reads, pointing out that the PUC and other state entities are asking for information directly from the telecom companies, and not the government.
“[N]one of the state laws the government seeks to preempt was enacted to influence foreign affairs,” the order continues. “Instead, the laws underlying the state investigations are directed at more mundane, local concerns such as utility regulation and privacy, traditional realms of state power.”
Verizon Maine has no comment on the ruling, according to local spokesman Peter Reilly.
The only matter yet to be decided is whether or not the state requests “would interfere with the national security operations of the government” — i.e. uncover so-called "state secrets." The PUC in Maine simply asks for Verizon to swear under oath that two press releases (one claims the NSA never asked for customer records; the other states that Verizon would only disclose such records when authorized by law) are true; other states such as New Jersey and Connecticut have asked for much more detailed information.
The state-secrets question depends on the outcome of another case being looked at Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals in California. The Maine Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief in that case, Hepting v. AT&T.
“We really think the government is overstepping its bounds in citing state secrets,” says MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows. To claim that Verizon would be disclosing state secrets by asserting that its public statements are truth “strains credulity,” she says.