Mobile carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, could temporarily avoid paying $200 million in privacy penalties because of the Federal Communications Commission’s partisan split, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. Sources familiar with the situation told the WSJ that the FCC, which has two Democratic commissioners and two Republican ones, needs one more vote of approval to levy the fines, and both Republican members haven’t voted yet.
Although Gigi Sohn, the person the Biden administration nominated to fill the FCC’s empty seat over a year ago, could potentially provide the tie-breaking vote to fine the companies, the Senate has yet to vote on her nomination. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile may be able to avoid paying the FCC’s penalty until that happens. However, they’re still facing a probe into whether they’re properly disclosing the way they use and share location data.
The FCC first announced its plans to fine AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint (which has since merged with T-Mobile) $200 million in 2020 after a report from Motherboard sparked concern over how carriers are handling customers’ data. In its report, Motherboard found that telecommunications companies were selling users’ real-time locations to third-party distributors, which could eventually fall into the hands of bounty hunters.
While the carriers pledged to clamp down on the misuse of user data in the future, AT&T still defended the practice, noting “there can be real, and potentially life-saving, benefits” to it in emergency situations. The FCC said the companies “apparently violated federal law” following its investigation into the matter and proposed the $200 million fine in response. At the time, all three Republican commissioners approved the penalty, while the two Democrats expressed concern over the amount of time it took for the FCC to take action.