Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in FCC v. ATT that corporations cannot cite the “personal privacy” exemption when refusing to respond to Freedom Of Information Act requests.
Monitoring the U.S. appellate court system offers some rewards to data professionals because the decisions often hinge on matters near and dear to the hearts of data modelers and requirements analysts: the meaning of words, the names of categories, the boundaries of categories, and the rules for determining when an instance qualifies as a member of a category. (An earlier post discusses one example: Does Rahm Immanuel qualify as a member of the category Chicago residents?)
For information professionals, FCC v. ATT is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it shows a serious attempt to determine the meaning of words in a system that requires rigorous interpretation. The word whose meaning was in question is “personal.”
Second, its opinion relied on an amicus brief that used exhaustive searches through several large electronic corpora of text. I expect that the appellate courts system will increasingly rely on large text databases to research what words mean by scrutinizing how those words have been used in written material spanning wide ranges of history.
Here’s a snippet about FCC v. ATT from SCOTUSblog:
In 12 pages of teacher-like explanation of the varying meaning of words, the Supreme Court on Tuesday told business companies organized as corporations the sad news that they are not entitled to the same privacy as human beings enjoy, at least when it comes to records that corporations have handed over to federal government agencies. But, at the end of the 12 pages, in what read like an intentionally clever gesture to make the ruling easier to accept, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., actually implied that corporations do have feelings, and are therefore capable of being offended. “We trust,” the concluding line said, “that AT&T will not take it personally.” In fact, that seemed contradictory to the ruling itself.