Feb 17, 2022 - Technology

Wireless lobby tangles future of domestic violence bill

Illustration of phone with siren emoji.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Lawmakers trying to advance a bill to help domestic abuse survivors believe it’s been stymied by the wireless industry because of concerns it will cost them customers, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Victims of domestic abuse don't currently have a guaranteed way to leave family plans with their phone lines on a federal level. Strict contracts and fines may keep them trapped in plans where abusers can access phone records or control services.

Driving the news: A bipartisan group of senators announced last week they'd reached an agreement on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), after many months of negotiation.

Yes, but: The Safe Connections Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in 2021 which would allow survivors of domestic abuse to separate their phone line from a family cellular plan and provide privacy protections for victims, was not included in VAWA's reauthorization, despite efforts from its sponsors to attach it.

  • Safe Connections wasn't included in the package, per a Hill source, because wireless industry trade group CTIA made clear it still wanted certain changes. "CTIA may claim they support the bill, but they are the ones blocking it," the Hill source said.
  • CTIA, whose members include AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, says it supports the bill and argues its changes would make it easier for survivors to change phone plans.
  • It has lobbied to strike a provision giving the FCC authority to hold companies liable for breaking rules set out in the bill; and wants to add a requirement that victims provide "account establishment information" to separate phone lines, per a version of the bill seen by Axios.

The big picture: The push-and-pull between the Hill and the wireless industry is an example of the far-reaching influence high-spending lobbying groups have in Washington on all issues.

  • “Our bill passed out of committee with broad bipartisan support," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the bill's lead author. "There is no reason legislation that helps domestic violence victims cut ties with their abusers should not be included in a package that’s literally all about helping domestic violence victims. It’s obvious.”

Between the lines: CTIA poured $12.4 million into lobbying last year, in addition to the $13.3 million Verizon spent, the $11.5 million AT&T spent and the $9.6 million T-Mobile spent.

What they're saying: “Wireless providers are committed to ensuring survivors of domestic abuse receive the support they need and offer options to transition to new plans," a CTIA spokesperson said in a statement.

  • CTIA told Axios that a domestic abuse survivor would only have to provide such "account establishment information" if the person was opting to keep their number and service with the same provider.

The other side: The changes from CTIA are viewed as a way for the wireless industry to retain the customer rather than letting them go, and could create an additional hurdle for a survivor, another Hill source told Axios.

  • Advocates for sexual abuse survivors who helped work on the bill argue the language gives wireless companies the ability to possibly use a survivor's information improperly, and that limiting the FCC's power to enforce the bill's provisions makes it significantly weaker.
  • "A law seeking to help survivors must be not only effective, but also empathetic to survivors’ experiences. CTIA’s proposed changes would undermine the Safe Connections Act on both fronts," said Thomas Kadri, a law professor at the University of Georgia and volunteer at the Clinic to End Tech Abuse at Cornell University.

What's next: Co-sponsors of VAWA are still working to include Safe Connections in the final version of the bill, per a source familiar. The bill's sponsors expect the Senate to vote on VAWA in March.

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