Shareholders Strike Back on Privacy


As public concern over federal government surveillance of online activity grows, a new wrinkle has been introduced. Shareholders in large communications companies are attempting to force those companies to disclose data about how often they share user data with the U.S. or other governments. According to The New York Times, shareholders at AT&T and Verizon filed resolutions in late November calling on those companies to provide semiannual reports detailing their compliance with government user requests.  The shareholder coalition, spearheaded by the New York State Common Retirement Fund, stressed that protecting customers’ private data is not only important from a civil liberties perspective, but is simply good business. This move occurs shortly after Google and Microsoft filed motions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, arguing that they have a First Amendment right to publish aggregate data on surveillance orders.

On December 9, AT&T declined the shareholder requests, citing privacy concerns and arguing that it is an internal matter related to everyday business procedure, which resulted in stinging criticism from the ACLU and New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. Verizon has not yet responded. But the shareholder complaints suggest that this issue, which is already making waves in legislative and judicial arenas, may become a battlefield in fights over corporate governance as well.  It may be harder for big players in the communications industry to appear to remain neutral or to argue that their hands are tied by the government.

Michael Verderame

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Permanent link to this article: