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NOAA sets new space sensing regulations

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  1. Content Restrictions
From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 39.

From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 39.

After years of deliberation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in late August issued final regulations to implement the Land Remote Space Sensing Policy Act of 1992, which authorizes the agency to license private land remote-sensing space systems and governs its ability to limit the use of images from space in order to protect national security.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations first commented on proposed regulations by NOAA in 1986 that were intended to implement a 1984 law which similarly authorized licensing of satellites that could affect news gathering. The media groups urged the government to limit its control over images from space because the regulations could infringe on the rights protected by the First Amendment.

“The Reporters Committee believes that the media organizations are committed to utilizing the latest technologies to the fullest extent possible to enhance their newsgathering efforts,” the comments said. The need for newsgathering from space became apparent during the Chernobyl accident; when the site was too dangerous to access and the only images of the site came from space, the Reporters Committee said.

In an effort to compete with foreign markets, the act was put in place to commercialize the use of space imaging. Two years later, President Clinton added a policy covering licensing and the operation of private remote sensing systems.

“The fundamental goal of our policy is to support and to enhance United States industrial competitiveness in the field of remote sensing space capabilities while at the same time protecting United States national security and foreign policy interests,” the Clinton policy states. But the policy still did not advocate who would have the power to limit the imaging.

The new regulations say that government agencies can only impose restrictions that protect “national security, international obligation or foreign policy concerns” when the restrictions apply to the smallest area and for the shortest period necessary to protect those concerns. The regulations stated the limitations would come from the highest levels of the Departments of State, Defense, Interior and Commerce, and from the National Security Council.

Mark Brender, former chairman of the RTNDA Remote Sensing Task Force, who now works for Space Imaging, said the new regulations are very broad and vague. He added that the regulations don’t say how or when the limitations would be placed and that once limitations are imposed, there is no mechanism to reverse them. Space Imaging is a commercial supplier of space imagery from satellites and is the only company which currently provides images up to one-meter resolution.

“Precise pictures from space will revolutionize television news, both by freeing reporters from relying solely on government-provided information and by freeing viewers from relying solely on what reporters tell them,” Brender said in written testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science in 1996.

But Brender said in October that journalists have not used the technology to the extent that he had hoped, citing cost as a hurdle. He said that the major purchaser of the technology has been the government, especially for mapping uses.

Despite the potential for restrictions, Brender said,”Space Imaging has been doing this for a year now and we haven’t had one knock on our door from the government.” He added though, that there hasn’t been a war in the past year. — TH