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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

November 24, 2010 at 9:36 AM

An obscure case would keep corporate information deeper in the shadows

The Supreme Court already overturned a century of jurisprudence to give corporations the same free-speech rights as humans, in the Citizens United case, allowing them to give essentially unlimited sums in political campaigns. (The same applies to unions, but they are a fading power on the American scene). Now another case may extend the “personhood” of corporations even further.

In FCC vs. AT&T, the issue is whether a corporation can be protected from the Freedom of Information Act, the landmark legislation that allows citizens and the press to gain access to information involving the government. When a government contract with a corporation is involved, it may be subject to full or partial disclosure under FOIA. But safeguards already exist to protect a company’s proprietary details. FOIA has been critical to informing Americans about everything from bankster misdeeds to contractor issues in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now AT&T is claiming a corporation has “personal privacy” and should be exempt from FOIA under all circumstances, just as an individual human would be. The original case involves over-billing a school district.

Nell Minow, the famous shareholder activist, comments on AT&T’s position: “This is absurd. An amicus (friend of the court) brief filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center argues that the lower court ruling ‘is contrary to widespread understanding, and almost nonsensical….an outlier, untethered to common understanding, legal scholarship, technical methods, or privacy law.’ “

She goes on:

Both capitalism and democracy are based on the ability of the participants to make informed judgments and that means that we must be very skeptical of any attempt to thwart public access to information. And of any effort to distort the meaning of the term “personal privacy.”

An enterprise that does not want to be subject to this level of scrutiny has that option. It can decide to remain closely held and make its secrets available only to that limited group. The name of this structure? Private equity. Public companies should make no claims on the protections of privacy that are the sole right of individuals.

Joke of the Week: The EU should change its anthem from “Ode to Joy” to “Owed to Germany.”

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Happy Thanksgiving

Sweet potatoes for some, or

I yam what I yam

Comments | More in Freedom of information, Shareholder rights

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