High court justices listening to arguments Wednesday in the Obama Administration’s appeal of a lower court privacy ruling concerning AT&T appeared less than sympathetic to AT&T’s claim that corporate entities may invoke the personal privacy provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in blocking disclosure of sensitive information provided to the FCC and other federal agencies. The Supreme Court case, Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, Inc., centers upon the public release of FCC records on an agency probe into services provided by AT&T to a Connecticut school district under the Universal Service Fund E-Rate program. CompTel, a trade association for the competitive local exchange industry, petitioned the FCC under FOIA to release the records in question. Challenging the FCC’s decision to release those records, AT&T cited an exemption in FOIA that bars the public release of government records when such action could “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Pointing to the legal definition of “person,” which also encompasses corporations, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit struck down the FCC order in 2009. During Wednesday’s arguments, however, Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer challenged AT&T to cite at least one example from newspaper clippings or from any other public source in which the interests of a corporation are equated with personal privacy. As counsel for AT&T admitted that he was unaware of any such example, he maintained that corporations depend upon the personal privacy exemption of FOIA to protect sensitive or damaging information that might be contained, for example, in interoffice e-mails between persons employed by the company. Chief Justice John Roberts, however, struck a skeptical tone as he observed, “I don’t think there is much to the argument that because ‘person’ means one thing, ‘personal’ has to have the same relation.” While voicing agreement with Roberts, a Justice Department attorney appearing on behalf of the Obama Administration emphasized that “the legislative history, the decisions of this court, point to the balance applying only to individuals.”
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Supreme Court questions AT&T on privacy claims
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