The Supreme Court is Funny – AT&T declared non personna

Every once in a while humor pops up in weird places.  The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision today on FCC v. AT&T, declaring that AT&T could not withhold information on the grounds that AT&T is a “corporate person” (thank you 14th amendment) and that the withheld information was “personal”.   SCOTUS did not agree.  At all.

In 2004 AT&T was found to have been overcharging the federal government for the E-Rate program that was meant to bring technology into classrooms. The FCC launched an investigation. The matter was resolved and a $500,000 settlement reached, but then CompTel, a trade association made up of AT&T competitors, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to look at all the investigation files.

But AT&T felt, passionately, that turning over these materials would violate the corporation’s “personal privacy.” One of the exemptions to FOIA—exemption 7(C)—provides that records may be withheld if their release would represent an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” But since this exemption has only ever been invoked to protect human privacy rights, never corporate ones, AT&T had to persuade the courts to extend the right to “personal privacy” to corporations as well as people.  Hence FCC v. AT&T ending up before SCOTUS.

During the oral argument, the chief justice spent the better part of the hour poking fun at AT&T’s claim that the adjective personal means the same thing as the noun person, such that the statute’s treatment of corporations as “persons” means that corporations are also somehow capable of getting “personal.” As he explained at argument, that claim makes no sense. “I tried to sit down and come up with other examples where the adjective was very different from the root noun,” he observed at the time. “It turns out it is not hard at all. You have craft and crafty. Totally different. Crafty doesn’t have much to do with craft. Squirrel, squirrely. Right? I mean, pastor—you have a pastor and pastoral. Same root, totally different.”

The unanimous opinion issued by the court continued in the same vein, referring to citations in  Webster’s that “[t]he noun crab refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective crabbed can refer to handwriting that is ‘difficult to read,’ ” and goes on to observe that “corny can mean ‘using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,’ which has little to do with corn, (‘the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food’).”

The opinion ends with

“The protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”



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Louisiana Doesn’t Care if You Spill Oil

Bloomberg News has done some investigative reporting into Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and it’s enforcement of the state’s oil pollution regulations (which aren’t to stringent to start with).  The full report is behind a paywall, bu the Columbia Journalism Review has published part of it here.

Louisiana DEQ has a grand total of eight spill responders for the entire state, relying on industry to self-report, clean-up, and monitor their spills.  State law requires notification within 24 hours (that’s how “prompt” is defined in regulation), and that the discharger take “reasonable” actions in response to the discharge.  State response actions are covered by a response fund.  The response fund is financed by a $0.02/barrel tax, and is capped at $7 million (roughly the amount spent in two days during the BP Macondo spill).

Most oil spills are small. But there are a lot of them in Louisiana—4,000 a year, which is more than any other state. And even when they are relatively large, they’re as likely as not to go unpenalized. The state’s average fine is 93% less than the federal government’s average fine for spills in Louisiana. Continue reading

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New Blog

I’ve started a new blog, Arctic Oil. I’ve moved most of the oil-related posts over to it already, and will move the rest of them as time allows.  This blog will stay up for non-oil related material, rants, and curmudgeonly ramblings.

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More Channels – Still A Wasteland

The only way to get decent internet here is via cable broadband, and the only way to get that is by paying through the nose for a “package” of services (like cable TV) that I generally don’t use or want. The “package” rules are that the more bandwidth and usage you want, the more cable television channels you have to pay for (forget unlimited usage, that doesn’t exist here).  So I now have something approaching 100 channels on the TV simply in order to get decent broadband service.

Edward R. Morrow warned that television would become a vast wasteland, and I came across a quote that sums up my experience with cable TV.  In 1961 the Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow addressed the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

Nearly 50 years later that statement still holds true.

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Volcano Produces Blue Skies Over Europe

I was reading the local newspaper this morning and saw an AP article explaining how the reduction in flights over Europe because of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland has led to the bluest skies in recent history.  Evidently there are enough jet planes flying at high altitudes over Europe most days that there is a constant smog layer in the atmosphere from jet exhaust and contrails.

The “Information Is Beautiful” blog has an interesting infographic on the same subject:

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If an idiot speaks and no one listens, is he still an idiot?

During the debate on the health care reform legislation, the party of “just say no” focused some of their negativism on Rep. Bart Stupak, whose switch from “no” to “yes” after President Obama promised an executive order prohibiting federal funds being spent on abortions gave the Democrats enough votes to pass the legislation.   At one point during Stupak’s floor speech, one member (presumably Republican, but not confirmed) shouted “Babykiller”.  The presiding speaker, Rep. Dave Obey, has said that he saw who shouted it but preferred not to snitch.  “Members have a right to make an idiot of themselves once without being identified,” he said.

Putting aside the fact that there is a direct correlation between increased health care availability and reduced abortion rates, Rep. Obey presumes a couple illogical points:

  • A person has a right to be an idiot.
  • Being an idiot is a self-reported state.

People do not have a “right” to be an idiot, no more than they have a “right” to exceed the speed limit if they are late for a meeting or to shout “Fire!” in a public building.  To be an idiot is to act outside of commonly acceptable behavior.

I doubt that very many people would willingly identify  themselves as an idiot.  Idiocy is conferred upon a person by others.  It is a classification based upon societal norms, conferred upon someone by others.  A person is only an idiot if they are identified as such by others.

A better response would have been to say “Members have a right to be ignorant in their own minds and, for purposes of decorum it is best not to identify such people.”

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Short Healthcare Rant

Everybody’s ranting for one side or another on the current U.S. health care debate, so I might as well add my fuel to the flames.  After listening to a wide range of opinions, from single-payer systems to death squads, I have the following observation.

We, as a society, acting through our elected representatives, have determined that universal access to electricity is in the best interest of the country.  So in 1935 Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to subsidize universal access to electricity among the rural and poor areas of the country.  We still have subsidized loan programs and grants for electrical infrastructure in rural areas.

We have determined that universal access to basic telephone service is an essential need of all Americans.  Our elected representatives passed the Telecommunications Acts of 1934 and 1996 to subsidize phone service to acheive that end.  We all pay $4-$5 per month on our phone bills to support basic telephone service for all households and schools.  We, as a society, have determined that it is in everyone’s best interest that poor folks can dial 911, and we, as a society, pay a monthly fee to subsidize universal access.

We have even determined that universal access to basic cable television is an essential need of all Americans that is worth subsidizing at the federal level.  And in 2007 Senator Ted Stevens sponsored the Universal Service for Americans Act that would have subsidized broadband internet to acheive near-universal access.

But many people, and their elected representatives, do not consider universal access to basic health care as an essential need of all Americans.

What does it say about us, that we value universal access to Fox News and broadband internet porn as more important than universal access to basic health care?

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