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Supreme Court: Companies Have No Personal Privacy Rights

March 1, 2011

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that AT&T Inc. and other corporations do not have personal privacy rights to prevent disclosure of federal government records about them.

The court unanimously overturned a ruling by a U.S. appeals court for the telecommunications company that corporations can assert personal privacy in claiming the records should be exempt from disclosure.

The justices agreed with the Obama administration’s argument that the personal privacy exemption under the Freedom of Information law applied only to individuals, not to corporations.

Public interest groups said that under AT&T’s position, government records could be withheld about coal mine safety violations, offshore oil rig problems, dirty conditions at food manufacturing plants and questionable investment bank financial dealings.

Business groups supported AT&T and said corporations have enjoyed a range of rights, including privacy rights.

AT&T said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should keep secret all records about it during an investigation into its participation in the federal E-Rate program.  This program helps schools and libraries get Internet access.

AT&T told the FCC in 2004 that an internal investigation revealed certain irregularities in the company’s billings to a Connecticut school under the program.

The FCC launched an investigation that led to a December 2004 settlement in which AT&T agreed to pay $500,000 and to adopt a two-year compliance program.

CompTel requested all records in the FCC’s file under the Freedom of Information Act.

The FCC decided to release some of the records.  However, AT&T said that disclosing this information was a violation to its right to personal privacy.

Chief Justice John Roberts overturned the appeals court decision, which agreed with AT&T on the situation.

He said the word personal ordinarily referred to individuals and dictionary definitions also suggested that it does not usually relate to corporations.

Roberts said in a writing that AT&T provided scant support that personal denoted corporations.

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