Supreme Court Rules Against Personal Privacy Protection in AT&T Case

Published April 12, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc. that corporations do not have “personal privacy” protection to prevent the disclosure of documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

In its unanimous 8-0 decision issued March 1, 2011, the court found that although Congress includes corporations in the term “person” with regard to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, it could not be assumed the term “personal” could also be applied to businesses.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the proceedings because she had previously worked on the dispute while a member of the Department of Justice.

No Personal Privacy for Corporations

The case centered on a 2004 report from the FCC in which it reported AT&T had overcharged schools for Internet access, an offense for which the FCC fined the company $500,000.

Some of AT&T’s competitors sought out details of the FCC investigation through FOIA requests. AT&T fought to exempt some of the company’s filings with the FCC, claiming such information amounted to an “invasion of personal privacy.”

The basis for AT&T’s argument derived from the Supreme Court’s controversial, landmark 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission in January 2010 which determined the First Amendment permits unlimited corporate funding of political broadcasts. The decision had been interpreted by some legal analysts as granting personal freedoms to corporate entities.

However, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion in the AT&T case: “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.”

‘Privacy Rights Kept Intact’

“Corporations need not be overly concerned that this decision will open their confidential information to FOIA requests, as today’s decision does not alter other exemptions available to corporations under the FOIA,” said Jaime Bianchi, a litigation partner at New York-based White & Case who is an expert on data privacy. “This decision does not hold that other rights, historically available only to individuals, are not also available to corporations.”

The decision does not affect the business or intellectual privacy of a corporation or people doing business with the corporation, Bianchi added. You might have the right to protect your business, but not a personal privacy right. Individual information is protected by a host of other laws, he said.

Frederick Lane, a Burlington, Vermont-based independent attorney and author of American Privacy, agreed the decision keeps intact basic privacy rights that individuals possess even where the Freedom of Information Act is concerned.

“AT&T had seen this as a way to tighten up Freedom of Information Act rulings,” Lane said.

‘Clear Exemptions’

Lane said he doesn’t see the ruling changing any of the FOIA privacy provisions for individuals.

“There are clear exemptions for when information is handed over to the government [under FOIA rules],” Lane said. “These were business records that did not go down to the level of the individual information of individuals.”

Of more concern, Lane said, is the amount of information that telecom companies record and keep as people register cell phones, smartphones, and other devices. “They collect a staggering amount of information.”

Lane said individuals have to bear the responsibility when they provide information if they want to protect their own privacy. Some people divulge far too much information, he said, sometimes on forms, but much more often through social networking sites.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

Internet Info:

Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, United States Supreme Court decision, March 1, 2011: