TR’s State Newswire

The Utility Reform Network and Greenlining Institute said that the Public Utilities Commission should impose the highest fine allowed by state statute on Comcast Phone of California for disclosing and publishing the names, telephone numbers, and addresses of Comcast residential subscribers who had paid to have their personal information unlisted.

According to the two consumer groups, the PUC “should impose the highest fine allowed by Public Utilities Code section 2107–$50,000 per violation,” and impose non-monetary remedies including “structural safeguards that preserve the commission’s ability to protect consumers.”

The PUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division previously said that Comcast Phone should be fined about $43.9 million in addition to “equitable relief to address the privacy loss of the 75,000 affected customers, and protect the privacy of nonpublished and other Comcast customers in the future” for publishing personal information its customers paid to keep private (12/02/14).

According to the SED, about 75,000 Comcast residential subscribers had their confidential information made public through various directories including the Internet. This confidential customer information was erroneously published for 27 months, from July 2010 through December 2012, before the error was reported by Comcast. In opening the investigation last year, the PUC said that Comcast may have violated the California Constitution and several provisions of the Public Utilities Code related to a customer’s right of privacy. Violations of Public Utilities Code or a commission decision is subject to fines of $500 to $50,000 for each violation, for each ongoing day, the commission said (10/18/13).

TURN and Greenlining are urging the PUC to order Comcast pay penalties totaling $42.6 million; order the company to provide safety protections for affected customers consisting of home security systems for each customer with safety concerns, for a period of three years; provide $20 million in restitution; require Comcast implement improved disclosure and notice policies; reform its complaint and monitoring process; perform a ‘clawback’ of customer information; perform regular audits; and be prohibited from enforcing confidentiality provisions of any releases. Any conditions imposed on Comcast should be binding on successor entities, the groups said.

“Comcast’s unlawful release of the unlisted and unpublished records of almost 75,000 customers caused substantial harms to consumers, to competition, and to the integrity of the Commission’s process,” the consumer groups said. “The number of released records is substantial and, more disturbingly, the result of multiple separate breaches. Additionally, Comcast’s actions to prevent the releases, detect the releases, and disclose and rectify the releases were grossly inadequate.”

Comcast, meanwhile, said that it inadvertently published the non-listed numbers of its voice subscribers in an online directory, which it “deeply regrets,” but took immediate steps to fix the problem and has since “made numerous improvements to further strengthen its directory listing processes.” Comcast said it should not be fined for its actions because “the release was inadvertent, and Comcast promptly reported the issue, fixed it, provided redress to customers, and took significant steps to improve its processes.”

The consumer groups, however, contend that Comcast “appeared to be overly concerned with its own bottom line,” and contacted few customers and “reimbursed them a paltry $1.50 credit for each month the number was unpublished. In addition, not all of the affected customers received the credit, because Comcast’s sole effort to reach former customers was to send a letter to a customer’s last known address, they said.

“Comcast’s casual attitude towards the privacy of its customers led to Comcast’s releasing the private information of almost 75,000 California Comcast customers,” the consumer groups said. “The circumstances of the violations, as well as Comcast’s subsequent response, more than justify the Commission’s imposing the highest allowable fine in this proceeding.” (Investigation 13-10-003)