AT&T Asks Judge To Send Location Privacy Suit To Arbitration

Wireless subscribers have no right to sue AT&T for allegedly disclosing location data, the telecom is telling a judge in San Francisco.

Instead, any complaints by subscribers should be sent to arbitration, AT&T argues in papers filed with U.S. District Court Judge James Donato. The company says the subscribers who are suing agreed to arbitration when they purchased their wireless contracts.

“Plaintiffs’ claims fall within the all-encompassing scope of their arbitration agreements, which require each of them 'to arbitrate all disputes and claims,'” the company writes.

AT&T makes the argument in response to a class-action complaint filed in July by three subscribers -- Katherine Scott, Carolyn Jewel and George Pontis -- who are represented by the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.



The complaint alleges that AT&T, as well as aggregators LocationSmart and Zumigo, violated the Federal Communications Act. That law requires telecoms to preserve confidentiality of “customer proprietary network information” -- meaning private data that carriers obtain “solely by virtue of the carrier-customer relationship.”

The subscribers are seeking an injunction prohibiting AT&T and the other companies from disclosing customers' geolocation data ways that run afoul of the federal law.

The EFF brought suit several months after the publication Motherboard reported that some carriers were selling customers' location data to third parties. Motherboard's article detailed how a journalist paid a “bounty hunter” $300 to track a phone's location to a neighborhood in Queens, New York.

The carrier for that phone was T-Mobile, which shared the location data with the aggregator Zumigo, which shared the data with Microbilt. Microbilt then disclosed the information to a bounty hunter, who shared it with a bail industry source, according to the article.

Last year, it also emerged that an aggregator was selling location data obtained from carriers to law enforcement authorities who lacked warrants.

The four major U.S. carriers have said they no longer sell location data.

California's highest court recently issued a ruling that could hurt AT&T's argument to compel arbitration, EFF attorney Aaron Mackey previously told MediaPost. In that matter, decided in 2017, California's Supreme Court ruled against enforcing an arbitration agreement in a case where a consumer sought an injunction.

AT&T argues in its recent papers that the 2017 California decision only applies when people are seeking an injunction that would benefit the “general public,” as opposed to some customers of a particular company.

“Plaintiffs’ requested injunction is, at bottom, a 'private' injunction that would benefit only themselves and a similarly situated subset of California AT&T wireless subscribers,” the company writes.

AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint are facing separate class-action privacy complaints in federal court in Maryland. All of the telecoms argue that those matters -- which also deal with alleged disclosures of location data -- should be sent to arbitration. U.S. District Court Judge James Bredar, who is presiding over those cases, hasn't yet ruled on the requests.

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