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Should companies be protected from the Freedom of Information Act?

John Dimsdale Jan 18, 2011

Should companies be protected from the Freedom of Information Act?

John Dimsdale Jan 18, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: The phrase “good corporate citizenship” carries with it a fairly broad definition, at least in the minds of many consumers. It means helping out in local communities, protecting the environment, and any one of a number of other things people can think to hang on that label.

In the law, definitions can be a bit more specific. A year ago, the Supreme Court gave corporate citizenship a very specific meaning. Companies have the right — as do regular walking, talking citizens — to contribute to political candidates for federal office.

Tomorrow the justices consider a case brought by phone giant AT&T that could affect a company’s right to personal privacy. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale explains.

John Dimsdale: In 2004, the FCC investigated an AT&T government contract to provide cheap Internet access to schools. A year later, AT&T’s competitors used the Freedom of Information Act to access documents the FCC had gathered. The FCC said fine, after stripping out what it considered corporate secrets. But AT&T sued to block release of the documents. It argued the Freedom of Information Act exempts information that invades personal privacy.

Geoff Klineberg will argue AT&T’s case before the Supreme Court tomorrow. He says the company is trying to prevent the release of potentially disparaging documents.

Geoff Klineberg: Corporations have an interest in protecting their reputations. And the use by a competitor for example, as is true in this case, of potentially harmful documents. ‘Here, look what AT&T is saying about you, Mr. Customer. Come with us instead.’

Klineberg says the Freedom of Information Act wasn’t designed to give corporate competitors access to private information.

Klineberg: I mean recall that FOIA is about learning what the government is up to, as the court has said many times. It’s not a mechanism for learning about corporations.

But a large number of news organizations are opposing AT&T’s claim of personal privacy. Lucy Dalglish is with the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press. She says businesses routinely use the FOIA to learn about competitors.

Lucy Dalglish: The Freedom of Information Act does not say who gets to get information held by the government. Sometimes competitors get it, sometimes people who don’t like you seek information about you. There’s nothing in the law that says you have to ask someone why they want the information when they ask for it.

But companies are used to being treated legally as people; the government protects them from unreasonable searches and seizures, for example. The Business Roundtable’s Maria Ghazal hopes tomorrow’s case will clearly establish a corporate right to personal privacy as well.

Maria Ghazal: Something you wouldn’t necessarily want your competitors or other companies to know that’s more personal to your company. It’s not necessarily under the category of a proprietary secret, but it’s what you feel is something that should stay within the company.

Businesses take heart from last year’s Citizens United case. That’s where the justices gave companies the same right as individuals to participate in political campaigns. They’re hoping the justices are ready to expand that right.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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