California judge upholds public utility's subscriber data sharing

By Kerry Goff | Jan 31, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California ordered last fall that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) could hand over requested confidential subscriber information to The Utility Reform Network (TURN) so it can research state market competitiveness, despite the resistance from communication companies like AT&T Mobility and other wireless carriers.

Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that federal law does not restrict CPUC from turning over the information requested by TURN, according to a Nov. 10 National Law Review article.

“Judge Chhabria also rejected a motion for summary judgment filed by CPUC and TURN because it has not yet been demonstrated that the proposed protective order would, in fact, adequately protect the companies from competitive harm,” the National Law Review article said. “Because such protection is a necessary predicate to avoiding a conflict with FCC regulations, Judge Chhabria reasoned, the adequacy of the protective order must be determined before CPUC can force companies to turn over such sensitive data.”

Chhabria explained in a Nov. 3 court document that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations do not prevent CPUC from requesting companies to disclose subscriber data to TURN.

The National Law Review article said the case became contentious when the wireless companies requested a permanent injunction in federal district court because the CPUC’s request for information conflicted with FCC regulations. Chhabria disagreed with the companies’ claims.

“Judge Chhabria distinguished the CPUC request in two ways: first, Judge Chhabria observed, when the FCC prohibits ‘disclosure,’ the FCC generally is referring to disclosure to the public, rather than disclosure to a third party that has intervened in a lawful regulatory investigation,” the National Law Review article said. “Second, he reasoned, the regulation the companies relied on governs the disclosure of information submitted through Form 477, and there is no indication that the regulation also was meant to govern the ways in which states gather similar information through their own investigations.”  

In unravelling FCC regulations, Chhabria also explained that the FCC had certain rules in place to protect companies from harm if their competitors somehow were able to access this sensitive, confidential information. Because of this, Chhabria wanted to make sure CPUC and TURN were taking proper precautions to not put wireless competitors at an unfair advantage.

“CPUC and TURN have yet to demonstrate that subscriber information will be adequately protected by the proposed protective order,” the National Law Review article said. “Thus, Judge Chhabria concluded, CPUC and TURN first must demonstrate the adequacy of the protective order under which such information will be shared before companies are required to comply with the disclosure request.”

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California Public Utilities Commission U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California

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