EFF, AT&T look to next month’s court battle

Fresh off a federal court victory last week in which a judge ruled it could maintain ownership of documents it plans to use in a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is looking forward to another day in court next month.

On June 23, another federal judge will hear motions by the telephone provider and the Bush administration to dismiss the EFF lawsuit, which accuses AT&T of helping the National Security Agency (NSA) in a domestic intelligence program.

The May 17 ruling says EFF is permitted to use the secret documents, which allegedly prove that equipment that would allow the NSA to eavesdrop on customer calls was installed three years ago in the telecom giant’s San Francisco office, according to published reports.

"We’re very pleased that the court refused AT&T’s unreasonable demand that this critical evidence be returned to AT&T and struck from the record," Kevin Bankston, EFF staff attorney, said in a statement. "…We think (May 17) was a real victory for the public’s right to know, and for our ability to litigate this case."

However, the judge also ruled that this evidence, which AT&T argues is proprietary, must be kept sealed.

AT&T applauded this part of the decision, company spokesman Marc Bien said in a statement today.

"The documents are confidential and proprietary and they belong to us," he said. "We vigorously protect our customers’ privacy, and we prize the trust our customers place in us."

EFF’s lawsuit came after media reports revealed late last year that the NSA had launched a domestic surveillance program. The Bush administration has since defended the program as a useful counter-terrorism tool.

Bien did not comment specifically on the lawsuit’s claims but said: "If and when AT&T is asked by government agencies for help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions. It would be irresponsible for AT&T to refuse to assist in protecting the country when the law allows or requires it as it would be for AT&T to provide such assistance when the law forbids it."

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