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Protesters face off with Verizon, AT&T

Groups gather across U.S. to protest phone companies' influence in D.C. and well-reported cooperation with National Security Agency. Photos: Protesting phone companies

Protesters lined streets on both coasts Wednesday to bring public awareness to the telecommunications policy debates currently going on in Washington, D.C., and to show opposition to the phone companies reportedly providing customer records without a court order to the National Security Agency.

The protest, called National Day of Out(R)age, was staged in several cities throughout the United States, including New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

Recent consolidation among telecommunications providers has made many people wary of the concentrated power the new mega-phone companies wield, especially in Washington, D.C., where they are spending millions of dollars to lobby Congress as it makes changes to the Telecommunications Act. This, coupled with reports that the phone companies helped the National Security Agency compile a database of Americans' phone records, has raised eyebrows among watchdog groups and concerned citizens.

Photos: Calling all telecom protesters

"Communication policy should be decided in a democratic fashion," said Michael Eisenmenger, of a nonprofit group called, who helped organize the protest in New York City. "And it doesn't look like that is happening today. These companies are spending millions of dollars lobbying and setting Astroturf front groups. And we think someone needs to look out for the public interest."

In New York City, about 50 to 60 people lined the street in front of Verizon Communications' worldwide headquarters in downtown Manhattan, chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, greedy telcos gotta go!"

Protesters seemed most concerned about proposed federal legislation that would let AT&T and Verizon, both in the process of upgrading their networks to offer TV service, apply for a nationwide video franchise instead of negotiating individual deals with municipalities.

Opponents to this legislation say national franchises would allow phone companies to redline or serve only affluent communities while also cutting funding for public access stations for large cities, such as New York.

The New York City Council also opposes the national franchise legislation and earlier this month voted unanimously to urge Congress to maintain local control of public rights-of-way and to oppose the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE), the national franchise bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.

A Verizon spokesman said the concerns voiced by New York City Council members and the protesters are overblown.

"The COPE bill provides for virtually everything these people are looking for," said John Bonomo. "Our objective is to get as much choice out to the customers in the quickest way."

About a dozen protesters convened outside AT&T Park (formerly SBC Park) in San Francisco before a Giants baseball game. They held up signs telling AT&T to "stop wiretapping Giants fans" and exhorted baseball fans to switch to the left-leaning Working Assets long-distance provider.

The fans seemed, for the most part, amused or uninterested. But the protesters did succeed in chasing off AT&T representatives who set up a publicity table outside the stadium and quickly decamped after being surrounded by megaphone-wielding activists.

New York City protesters also voiced their concern over the phone companies' alleged cooperation with the NSA to assemble a large database of Americans' phone records.

Udi Ofer with the New York Civil Liberties Union told the crowd that his organization has sent a letter to New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer asking that he investigate the phone companies.

"It is not up to Verizon or AT&T to act as a court of law," he said. "If they handed over phone records to the government, then they violated the law."