Actions against the Telecommunications Companies

Privacy International’s Pre-Action Letters to the Telecommunications Companies

On August 2, 2013, the German newspaper Süddeustche Zeitung revealed, on the basis of a GCHQ powerpoint presentation from 2009 leaked by Snowden, that the following telecommunications companies had assisted in GCHQ’s surveillance: BT, Verizon Business, Vodafone Cable, Level 3, Global Crossing (now owned by Level 3), Viatel, and Interoute. “Snowden enthullt namen der spahenden Telekomfirmen,” translated as “Snowden revealed names of spying telecom companies,” Google Translated version.

On August 9, 2013, Privacy International sent pre-action letters to each of the telecommunications companies, demanding details of their relationships with GCHQ, including their policies for assessing the lawfulness of government requests to intercept communications and descriptions of any requests they had received, any steps they had taken to oppose or resist requests, and the amount that they had been paid for their cooperation with the government.

The formal complaint before the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Privacy International did not believe that the telecommunications companies’ answers to the pre-action letters demonstrated that they had taken steps to mitigate or prevent the adverse human rights impacts of their cooperation with the GCHQ. Although Privacy International had originally intended to add the companies as respondents to its IPT claim, it decided not to do so both because even parties before the IPT are not kept abreast of its secret proceedings and because the IPT may take up to seven or eight years for to decide a case. Loek Essers, “Privacy group files OECD complaints over UK telco spying,” PC World, November 5, 2013. Instead, on November 5, 2013, Privacy International filed a formal complaint asking the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)to investigate whether up to a dozen OECD guidelines, pertaining to companies’ responsibilities to respect human rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression, were violated.” Although interested parties may file complaints before the OECD, that organization is not a court and has no power to issue legal judgments. According to Privacy International’s communications manager, Mike Rispoli, however, filing a complaint with the OECD “is an avenue that could allow for a real investigation into the companies’ business practices.”

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