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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: Dec. 1, 2019

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  1. Policy

We hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday! This newsletter will be slightly shorter than usual.

Here’s what the staff of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is tracking this week.

Amazon introduces president’s statements as evidence of claimed bias in JEDI bid

Remember when we told you that Amazon planned to challenge the Pentagon’s decision to award a $10 billion cloud-computing contract to Amazon for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, project? Well, on Nov. 23, the Washington Post reported that Amazon “for the first time” directly linked President Trump’s comments about Amazon and Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, to the failed bid for the contract. Bezos owns the Post, and both he and the paper have been frequent targets of presidential criticism.

The company notified the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that it plans to use four videos as exhibits, which Amazon claims show improper bias.

The introduction of the president’s statements as evidence of bias in a regulatory proceeding is notable. In the government’s appeal of a district court’s decision to permit the AT&T/Time Warner merger to proceed, lawyers for the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of neither party. That brief challenged the district court’s reasoning in denying a limited discovery request by AT&T to determine the viability of a selective enforcement defense (because Time Warner owns CNN, also a frequent target of the president).

Reporters Committee attorneys argued in the brief that when there is manifest evidence of discriminatory intent — such as public statements by the president (as both president and a candidate for office) suggesting a desire to retaliate against a news organization for perceived negative coverage — the First Amendment counsels in favor of employing a more permissive standard with respect to limited discovery.

Our brief also noted historical examples of administrations under both parties using regulatory tools, such as antitrust, in efforts to influence the tenor of news coverage about the president.

— Lyndsey Wajert

Quick Hits

Speaking of selective enforcement, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has formally accused the U.S. government of selectively enforcing its pre-publication rules against him by filing a lawsuit to block him from profiting off of his memoir. The “Permanent Record” author argues in court documents that the government has a history of approving books it considers favorable, whereas, given his role as a whistleblower, his book would not have been treated fairly in the process. The TPFP team discussed the legal implications of the government’s pre-publication review process in a previous newsletter.

A spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry says the country “rejects” a lawsuit against Iran filed by former Washington Post Tehran correspondent (and current Global Opinions writer) Jason Rezaian. Rezaian was jailed in Iran for 544 days on espionage charges, and a U.S. district court recently awarded the journalist and his family $180 million in damages.

The New York Times recently took a deep dive into “deepfakes,” highlighting how technology companies are planning to tackle digitally manipulated and computer-generated videos. We have previously discussed how some states have passed laws to combat deepfakes, and how some groups are raising concerns about the First Amendment implications of such laws.

For all of you “tweeps” out there, the Twitter Safety team announced that users are now able to enable two-factor authentication without relying on phone numbers. The move comes after the CEO’s account was reportedly hacked by individuals who likely used his phone number.

Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is receiving mixed reviews on a keynote speech he recently delivered at an Anti-Defamation League conference. The actor, who followed the speech with an op-ed in the Washington Post, warned about the dangers of social networks and advocated for amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. While some are praising Cohen for his powerful and entertaining criticism of noxious speech, both online and off, others are pointing out that Section 230 actually provides platforms with the ability to remove bad content without being legally liable as the publisher of other content they leave up. That protection forms the foundation of the modern internet — and is particularly important for the viability of smaller or start-up companies.

Gif of the Week: The top story about project JEDI had us wishing we could use the ways of the force to get a second helping of pie this week.


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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee Attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Fellow Linda Moon and Legal Fellows Jordan Murov-Goodman and Lyndsey Wajert.