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Company Privacy Rights Get Review at U.S. High Court

AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, is trying to block the disclosure of what it says are competitively sensitive documents connected to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission investigation into the company’s billing practices under a government program aimed at improving telecommunications technology in schools. Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg
AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, is trying to block the disclosure of what it says are competitively sensitive documents connected to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission investigation into the company’s billing practices under a government program aimed at improving telecommunications technology in schools. Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg

Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to use a case involving AT&T Inc. to consider whether a corporation can challenge the release of government documents as an infringement of the company’s privacy rights.

The justices today said they will hear the Obama administration’s appeal of a ruling that said corporations can invoke a provision in a federal document-disclosure law that protects against invasions of “personal privacy.”

The government says the U.S. appeals court ruling upset the decades-old understanding of the Freedom of Information Act, under which hundreds of thousands of requests are filed every year.

The ruling “likely also will result in the withholding of agency records to which the public should have access, including records documenting corporate malfeasance,” the administration argued in a brief filed by then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

President Barack Obama has since appointed Kagan to the Supreme Court, and she didn’t take part in the court’s decision today agreeing to hear the case.

AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, is trying to block disclosure of what it says are competitively sensitive documents connected to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission investigation into the company’s billing practices under a government program aimed at improving telecommunications technology in schools. AT&T reached a $500,000 settlement with the FCC that year.

FOIA Request

CompTel, a trade association representing companies that compete with AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., filed a freedom of information request in 2005, seeking access to the investigation file.

AT&T urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal, saying the Philadelphia-based appeals court reached the right conclusion.

“Corporations, like individuals, face the prospect of public embarrassment, harassment and stigma based on their involvement in such investigations,” the company argued.

AT&T’s contentions, if adopted by the court, “would be a much more sweeping protection of company documents,” said Charles Davis, a professor at the University of Missouri’s journalism school. He called the case “huge.”

In interpreting the phrase “personal privacy,” the appeals court pointed to the statute’s definition of “person” as including corporations. The appeals court said that definition suggests that “personal” includes corporations as well.

Only Individuals

The government argues that the most natural meaning of “personal” covers only individuals and that AT&T’s reasoning would also let government agencies assert a privacy interest.

The Supreme Court’s ruling might affect a bid by Bloomberg LP to force the Federal Reserve Board to release documents identifying banks that might have failed without the U.S. government bailout, Davis said. A federal appeals court in New York has ordered the disclosure, and the Fed is weighing an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Bloomberg case centers on a separate FOIA provision that protects against the disclosure of company trade secrets. Even so, Davis said an AT&T victory in its case might give the banks a new line of argument to try to block disclosure of the Fed records.

Bloomberg LP is the parent company of Bloomberg News.

The case is Federal Communications Commission V. AT&T Inc., 09-1279.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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