U.S. Supreme Court hands AT&T corporate privacy case beatdown

Businesses are not entitled to the same privacy as people. That was the conclusion of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ruling against AT&T that ended up being a discussion of word use and semantics as much as a privacy debate.

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The word use argument stemmed from the fact that AT&T argued in court papers that the word "personal" necessarily incorporates the statutory definition of "person," which includes corporations. But adjectives do not always reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns. "Person" is a defined term in the statute; "personal" is not. When a statute does not define a term, the Court typically "give[s] the phrase its ordinary meaning," the court stated.

From the SCOTUS blog: AT&T, of course, had paid its lawyers to go before the Court and argue that corporations do have "personal privacy," just as humans do, and are therefore capable of being embarrassed by public disclosure of such things as internal e-mails. The Court rejected that legal claim, interpreting the Freedom of Information Act's protection of "personal privacy" as reserved for humans, when a government agency comes into possession of private documents during an official investigation. As he had done during oral argument in January, the Chief Justice used his opinion to discuss how words and their derivatives can mean very different things, or very similar things, and so need to be read in context. 'Corny,' for example, has little to do with 'corn,' the opinion suggested. ...Constitutional cases that AT&T had relied upon to help make its privacy argument, the Court said, "are too far afield to be of help here.'"

The case centered on a 2004 report from the Federal Communications Commission that said AT&T had overcharged school for Internet access and AT&T had been fined $500,000. As you might imagine, some of AT&T's competitors sought out details of the FCC investigation and AT&T balked saying such information amounted to an "invasion of personal privacy."

"We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities," the court wrote. "In fact, we often use the word 'personal' to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company's view."

From the Wall Street Journal: "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."

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