Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Do Corporations Have Personal Privacy?

I've just found an interesting case from the Supreme Court of the Unites States on whether corporations have the so called "personal privacy". You can review the opinion here and a brief commentary from the SCOTUS Blog here. Apparently, according to the Supreme Court, while in legal terms the word "person" may include corporations, the word "personal privacy" is not applicable for corporations since the word itself pertains to the privacy interest of individuals, it suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns, and this is not the sort usually associated with an entity like corporations. To put it simply, can you actually hurt the feeling of a corporation?

The case itself is about the request from a US trade organization asking the US Federal Communications Commission to disclose information related to its investigation upon AT&T on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"). The request was rejected due to some exemptions under FOIA, i.e. (i) trade secrets and commercial or financial information, and (ii) records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes that could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The main issue came from the second exemption. While in the end no information was shared, the exemption was made by FCC on the basis that some of the information may attack the personal privacy of AT&T's employees. AT&T cannot accept that reasoning and further asked the court to protect the information on the basis that the disclosure of such information may attack the personal privacy of AT&T. Yes, this is a game of words.

As discussed above, the Supreme Court finally decided that personal privacy is not applicable for corporations. They have already received enough protection from the restriction to disclose trade secrets and commercial or financial information. So why bother asking protection for personal privacy information? However, it should be noted that the above opinion was made on the basis of a strict grammatical interpretation on the words "personal privacy". While I mostly concur with the use of grammatical interpretation when the text of the laws is clear, I think it would be better if the US Supreme Court can also provide an economic insight on their decision.

Sure, companies do not have any feeling and no board of directors are crazy enough to claim that a disclosure of certain information can hurt the feeling of their company. BUT, any company would do almost anything to maintain its reputation and disclosure of certain information can surely hurt the reputation of the company, which is bad for the business. Can we cover this issue of reputation within the context of personal privacy? Maybe, but for now, the United States Supreme Court will stick with their latest concept of personal privacy, and I will reserve that question for another time.

I would love to know what Indonesian jurists will do if a similar case is happening here. This might open an engaging discussion on the limit of imposing human attributes to legal entities.

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