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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: April 12, 2020

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  1. Policy

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.

Reporters Committee prepares survey of state, territorial emergency power laws

Over the past few weeks, the Reporters Committee has published resources for journalists and news organizations to navigate legal issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. See our landing page here for information on public records, court access, and emergency measures, as well as an intake form to track COVID-19-related access issues.

And check out the Reporters Committee’s special analysis describing emergency powers, including stay-at-home orders and mandatory quarantines, and their implications for the press. Soon, we will also publish a survey of state and territorial emergency power laws and how they interact with press rights.

Many states have provisions that expressly limit the use of emergency powers with respect to the media. For example, Florida’s emergency management statute — which contains language repeated in many other states’ laws — clarifies that the law may not be used to “[i]nterfere with the dissemination of news or comment on public affairs.” As in many states, however, this provision also says that outlets “may be required to transmit or print public service messages furnishing information or instructions in connection with an emergency.”

Similarly, roughly a dozen states have “first informer broadcaster” laws, which, if a media organization qualifies, generally allow employees to access and resupply their broadcast stations, even if in an emergency area, for the purpose of disseminating the news and public service announcements related to a crisis.

The Reporters Committee plans to publish this survey soon.

— Jordan Murov-Goodman

Quick Hits

In a letter sent Wednesday, the Reporters Committee urged Congress to provide emergency funding to allow virtual access to proceedings in courts that have closed because of the pandemic. Because “[t]he outbreak has changed the daily operations of federal courts across the country,” the letter reads, Congress should “include measures to preserve and promote press and public access to court records and proceedings in its next pandemic response bill.”

California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal issued what’s called a “writ of supersedeas” earlier this month in the case involving the City of Fullerton’s claims against local bloggers who city officials alleged hacked the city’s Dropbox account. The writ prevents the lower court from issuing any more orders in the city’s lawsuit against the bloggers as the appellate court considers the case. Attorneys for the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in November.

YouTube said it would reduce the number of recommended videos that spread false claims that 5G mobile technology is linked to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp is implementing measures to reduce the spread of misinformation by limiting the amount of chats to which users can share “frequently forwarded” content to one chat at a time.

A federal court that authorizes foreign intelligence surveillance warrants and court orders has directed the FBI to review a set of applications for these tools to ensure there was a valid legal basis to sustain them in the first place. This court order comes in response to a recent Department of Justice inspector general report finding errors and a lack of adequate factual support in the same set of 29 applications reviewed during an internal audit.

The NSO Group, an Israeli-based spyware company, filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging its software was used, in violation of federal hacking law, to gain access to the phones of approximately 1,400 WhatsApp users, including journalists. The company argues it is shielded by “derivative foreign sovereign immunity,” which bars suits against foreign nations, because their software was only used by government clients. It also argues that WhatsApp’s claims amount to an allegation that the NSO Group violated WhatsApp’s terms of service, and such a violation does not constitute a violation of the federal hacking law.

The extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will proceed in May as planned after a court rejected his legal team’s bid to postpone the case due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

🤓 Smart reads 📖

This piece about Americans’ reliance on the telephone for news dissemination and information during the 1918 flu pandemic — and the potential health hazards it posed — helps keep everything in perspective.

Gif of the Week: Inspired by this week’s “smart read” and the history of the telephone, a gif from the binge-worthy show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”


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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.