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High Court Rules Against Corporate Privacy Rights

Privacy
Author: Mark Dixon
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
4:28 pm

The Wall Street Journal reported today:

imageThe Supreme Court ruled unanimously that personal-privacy rights don’t apply to corporations under the Freedom of Information Act.

Tuesday’s ruling was a defeat for AT&T Inc., which was seeking to block the disclosure of emails and other potentially embarrassing documents it provided to the Federal Communications Commission during a 2004 investigation by the agency of whether the telecommunications giant overbilled the New London, Conn., public schools.

I am not a legal scholar by any means, but it seems that the courts often split hairs, sometimes treating corporations as persons and other times as non-persons.  In this case, non-personhood prevailed.

The court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said corporations don’t get to enjoy certain personal-privacy exemptions included in FOIA, a disclosure law that allows the public to gain access to some documents filed with the government.

"The protection in FOIA against disclosure of law-enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."

That last comment by Chief Justice Roberts is an interesting play on words.  According to his judgment, AT&T couldn’t take it “personally”.  They had to take it “corporately.”

How will it affect us?  Opinions vary:

News-industry groups and open-government advocacy organizations argued that AT&T’s position could place a wide range of records on corporate-behavior off limits to the public.

Several business groups backed AT&T. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the threat of public disclosure could have a chilling effect on corporations’ willingness to cooperate with law-enforcement authorities.

It will be interesting to watch where this leads.

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