FCC vs. AT&T: A Little Known Case With Big Consequences

Most of the media and activist organizations are focused on the Republican effort to Repeal Obamacare this week.  Between that, the state visit by China’s Hu Jintao, and continuing fallout from the Gifford’s shooting, a very important court case has gone largely unnoticed.

This week, the Supreme Court will hear FCC vs AT&T.  Joshua Trevino has a breakdown of the case and what’s at stake:

By way of background, the case stems from a 2004 incident in which AT&T discovered it was overcharging the federal government on work related to E-Rate. The company voluntarily reported itself to the FCC, which then opened an investigation. David Johnson recountswhat happened next:
During the course of the investigation, the FCC ordered AT&T to produce invoices, internal emails and billing information, responses to interrogatories, names of employees involved in the alleged overbilling, and AT&T’s own assessment of the extent to which its employees’ actions violated its internal code of conduct.
Therein lay the cause of the trouble. Once this information was in the FCC’s hands, a trade association called CompTel — comprised of AT&T’s competitors — filed a FOIA request for all the hitherto-proprietary AT&T info in the FCC’s possession. This abuse of the intent of FOIA, which was meant to promote open government rather than corporate intelligence gathering, was — to the surprise of many observers — validated by the FCC in late 2008, when it ruled that corporations are not protected by FOIA’s privacy exemptions. Just over one year later, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the FCC (PDF) in a defense of FOIA’s plain intent.

If the FCC wins this case it will be a signal to companies around the country that FOIA is the vehicle to get information on your competitors.  As Trevino explains:

Now the FCC has appealed to the Supreme Court, and the arguments begin in just two days. If the Court upholds the Third Circuit, all is well: the processes of government cannot be used to further either private agendas, whether driven by profit or ideology. If the Court upholds the FCC, on the other hand, American business is in for a rough time. There’s little doubt that liberals seeking to strike back after Citizens United will exploit FOIA to cause havoc and harm to any corporation that doesn’t toe their line. (As is on cue, here’s Senator Leahy weighing in for the FCC this past November.) It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this leads — especially with the executive agencies of the federal government in Barack Obama’s hands through at least January 2013.

… In the larger sense, it’s about whether the left gets to use FOIA to pry open and terrorize American businesses at will.

The FCC is already unpopular with many Americans due to their blatant power grab called “Net Neutrality”.  It seems they are pushing an increasingly aggressive agenda these days, and I just hope enough conservatives are paying attention.

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