AT&T and Property Rights

by Dual Income No Kids on November 14, 2006 · 0 comments

This June, The American Telephone and Telegraph company (AT&T) recently declared consumer information to be corporate property. The announcement didn’t get a lot of coverage, but the intellectual precedent it sets is exceptionally important.

By consumer information, typically its understood to mean marketing information like buying or voting habits, or personal identification info such as social security numbers, addresses, etc. Whats key about this is, by declaring this information to be corporate property, AT&T is claiming the right to use, buy or sell personal information as if it were thing like a house or car. In this case, its important understand that property is rarely about the actual piece of property (e.g. real estate, car, stereo, idea, etc.), but more about who has the right to do what with it.

There are two fundamental reasons why a shift to corporate ownership of personal information is problematic for consumers.

1) Its unamerican: Fundamentally, America is a individualist democratic nation. We decide our governments based on the principle of one person, one vote. Also, the basis of much of America’s contract law is derived from the philosophy that contracts can only be entered into between freely consenting individuals who clearly understand their rights and obligations.
The main point here is that allowing a corporation to declare ownership of consumer data is inconsistent with our political and legal traditions of rights vested in sovereign individuals.

2) It unfairly advantages consumers: There are two likely outcomes from AT&T’s declaration. 1. AT&T will sell personal information to others for marketing purposes. 2. AT&T will provide the information to the federal government for the purposes of anti-terrorism investigations.

The merits of both of these can be debated. However, in the first place, I do not understand why AT&T should not have to pay a fee to consumers whose information has been sold. For example, in order to live in someones house, one normally pays rent to that person. In order to use someones personal information, shouldn’t a corporation have to pay a fee to use that information? Declaring personal information as corporate property unfairly takes money out of the hands of consumers.



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