U.S. Supreme Court to hear case on corporate privacy

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case over whether AT&T records obtained by the federal government in an investigation of billing practices should be made open to the public. -db

The Wall Street Journal
September 28, 2010
By Maya Jackson Randall and Brent Kendall

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear 14 cases for its 2010-2011 term, including several with business implications.

The high court agreed to consider whether records AT&T Inc. submitted to the U.S. government as part of a 2004 billing probe should be disclosed to its competitors, a case that could impact upon public access to corporate information.

The Federal Communications Commission turned to the high court after a lower court rejected its argument that corporations don’t get to enjoy certain personal privacy exemptions included in a key public disclosure law.

At issue are the various records the FCC collected from AT&T as part of the billing investigation six years ago. The records include invoice data, names of employees involved in the overbilling and price information, among other things. The probe was resolved in December 2004, with AT&T not admitting liability but agreeing to refund the government $500,000 for improper billings.

But questions about whether the records should be kept private continue.

In 2005, Comptel, a trade organization for telephone companies that compete with large incumbents including Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T, requested access to the records under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a key disclosure law aimed at increasing the public’s access to government information.

AT&T continues to fight the move. It argues that all of the records it turned over to the FCC should be withheld from the public. Releasing the data would be an invasion of privacy, it says.

In 2005, the FCC ruled that AT&T as a corporation is not entitled to the disclosure law’s “personal privacy” exemption. It partly granted Comptel’s request. But it withheld pricing and contractor records that were commercially sensitive as well as private information about individuals at the company.

Still, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s argument. It ruled last year that the Freedom of Information Act’s personal privacy exemption does indeed apply to corporations such as AT&T.

The case is FCC v. AT&T, 09-1279. Oral arguments are likely to take place early next year, with a decision expected by July.

Associated Press contributed to this article.

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