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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: Aug. 23, 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.

A look back, and forward

It’s been quite a first year for this newsletter.

First, thanks to all of our subscribers, readers and supporters. We hope This Week in Technology and Press Freedom has been informative and helpful in culling through the mountain of technology news with implications for journalists and press rights.

We’re going to take a few weeks off following this edition and will return in September as we welcome the new class of fellows at the Technology and Press Freedom Project. If you haven’t already done so, we would really appreciate it if you could fill out our five-minute survey about the newsletter. Your answers will help guide us in re-launching the newsletter in the fall. The survey will be open until 5 p.m. ET on Aug. 24.

Second, we bid a fond farewell — but not goodbye — to the departing fellows and interns who have worked so hard to protect the freedom of the press during a time of novel and substantial challenge. We thank Linda Moon, Jordan Murov-Goodman, Lyndsey Wajert, Abe Kenmore, Joey Oteng, and Sasha Peters and wish them well as they head to their next success.

Third, in a year of pandemic and protest — along with threats to reporter-source confidentiality, efforts to regulate online speech, continued concern over government and private sector electronic surveillance, and ongoing challenges to government transparency — it’s virtually impossible to pick three takeaways from the last 12 months. But I’m going to try. When we come back in the fall, here is what I imagine will still be with us.

Subtle regulatory issues. There’s still an enormous amount of action on the antitrust front, for instance, including allegations by a Justice Department whistleblower of political influence on enforcement decisions. The Federal Communications Commission continues to struggle with the president’s executive order attempting to police “bias” online (with the administration pulling the nomination of a Republican commissioner who appeared to break with the White House on the order). And, the European Court of Human Rights is set to consider a case where a “right-to-be-forgotten” action forced an online paper to close.

Leaks. Although prosecutors haven’t brought a new Espionage Act case against a journalistic source since Henry Frese in October 2019, leak issues are still out there. The Julian Assange extradition proceeding starts up again in early September, for instance. The Defense Department recently reversed itself after referring to journalists as “adversaries” in an anti-leak training course. And the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence office was reassigned after reports that the office had prepared “dossiers” on journalists for publishing unclassified information.

Hacking laws. The Supreme Court is set to take up the scope of the federal hacking law for the first time, which continues to touch up against press rights. And, overseas, cyber laws are being used overtly to target journalists — in addition to reporters themselves being hacked.

— Gabe Rottman

Quick Hits

The Department of Homeland Security released a report detailing its development of tools that border patrol agents can use to collect data from electronic devices. The report states that the U.S. Border Patrol may extract and keep contacts, call logs, calendar events, emails, and more from searched electronic devices. These developments follow a recent federal court ruling that suspicionless searches of electronic devices at the border are unconstitutional, but do not require a warrant. The Reporters Committee recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, arguing for a warrant requirement because of the impact of border searches on newsgathering.

The U.S. Secret Service and an increasing number of law enforcement agencies are buying access to data that might otherwise require a warrant. A new report found that the Secret Service paid about $2 million in 2017-18 to a company that provides a location data service based on data compiled from a variety of other apps. The Reporters Committee has previously argued that the long-term tracking of cell phone location information could reveal First Amendment-protected activities and threaten source confidentiality.

Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who has critically covered President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, spoke to Vanity Fair about her recent prosecution for cyber libel, explaining that she is “strong enough to take the target.” Ressa recently moved to dismiss a second cyber libel complaint after being convicted of one in June, both filed by a business executive. The Reporters Committee has previously covered the implications of governments invoking cybercrime laws to silence reporters and their sources.

The Trump administration is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the president’s social media executive order, arguing that the order does not obligate private parties to do anything but rather directs executive officials to examine “allegations that large social media online platforms have displayed political bias in moderating content.”

Gif of the Week: Jordan Murov-Goodman, legal fellow, last of the newsletter old guard at the Reporters Committee, here to say goodbye to our wonderful subscribers. Enjoy the end of your summer, and stay safe. Thank you for reading!


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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. (Reporters Committee Communications Intern Sabrina Conza contributed to this week’s newsletter.)