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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: July 5, 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.

Attorney General suggests concerning use of antitrust laws in retaliation for tech companies’ content moderation

On June 21, Attorney General William Barr suggested invoking antitrust laws against tech companies based on concern over alleged bias in content moderation. Speaking to Fox News, Barr said that concentration in the technology industry has led to the “censor[ship of] different viewpoints,” but he did not name specific companies. The New York Times subsequently reported that Barr has taken a particular interest in an antitrust investigation into Google.

Further, on June 24, John Elias, a Department of Justice career antitrust attorney, told the House Judiciary Committee that his division was directed to investigate merger activity among cannabis companies, despite the proposed mergers not meeting the criteria for an investigation. Elias also described the department opening an investigation into car makers for entering into an emissions agreement with California that is more restrictive than the national standard, which President Trump decried on Twitter.

Elias asked the department’s inspector general to examine whether the two actions “constituted an abuse of authority, a gross waste of funds, and gross mismanagement,” and testified that they were taken over the objections of career officials. Elias’s testimony raised concerns over the politicization of antitrust enforcement.

The Reporters Committee previously noted in a friend-of-the-court brief the potential for the misuse of antitrust laws to limit free speech in a case involving the Trump administration’s attempt to block the AT&T/Time Warner merger. In the brief, the Reporters Committee pointed to the Trump campaign’s and administration’s opposition to the merger, and criticism of CNN, which was then owned by Time Warner.

The concern over politicized antitrust investigations is particularly acute for the media. For instance, as outlined in the Reporters Committee’s brief, President Lyndon Johnson obtained a letter from the Houston Chronicle pledging loyalty in exchange for approving a bank merger that would benefit the newspaper’s president, John Jones. Jones also served as president of one of the banks.

Similarly, President Richard Nixon considered using a lawsuit against ABC, CBS and NBC as leverage to extract more favorable coverage. Nixon was recorded on tape saying his goal was “solely political.” The suit was later dismissed.

A push to regulate technology platforms — under the banner of antitrust — in order to elevate or suppress certain viewpoints, as the attorney general appears to be suggesting, would be just as concerning for press and speech rights as those infractions of the past.

— Abe Kenmore and Gabe Rottman

Quick Hits

The EARN IT Act, which would amend liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for websites that host third-party content, advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The Open Technology Fund and several of its board members sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in their case against Michael Pack, the newly appointed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, that would prevent Pack from firing OTF’s officers and directors, and those of USAGM international broadcasters. On Thursday, the district court denied the temporary restraining order. Separately, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Pack expressing “deep concern” with the firings.

Reporters Committee Policy Analyst Melissa Wasser testified before the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet on June 25 in favor of expanding court technologies for remote court access. Wasser, along with other witnesses, shared best practices, opportunities for innovation, and implications on transparency in the judiciary. Read the Reporters Committee’s coverage of Wasser’s commentary and the full written testimony.

On Monday, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the  U.S. Park Police’s attack on two Australian journalists and the clearing of peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square on June 1. The Reporters Committee submitted a letter to the committee expressing concern over the attack.

Facebook recently announced that it would roll out a notification screen that will appear when people attempt to share articles older than 90 days. According to Facebook’s announcement, the feature is meant to address “concerns about older stories being shared on social media as current news, which can misconstrue the state of current events.”

Journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. of the Philippines-based Rappler filed a motion for partial reconsideration on Monday after they were convicted in Philippines court of “cyber libel.” The motion accuses Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of committing 13 errors and acting with malice when she convicted the journalists. The conviction has been widely criticized as an attempt to silence Ressa and Santos and chill speech regarding President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

? Smart reads ?

The Reporters Committee recently updated its guide for journalists covering protests, and New York University’s First Amendment Watch released “A Citizen’s Guide to Recording Police,” a legal primer on recording and sharing videos of police activity. The RCFP guide update and the NYU publication come on the heels of multiple incidents in which police arrested and assaulted journalists during nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice.

A new documentary, “Welcome to Chechnya,” has found a novel use for “deepfake” technology, using AI to protect human rights activists interviewed for the film by replacing their faces with those of volunteers.

Gif of the Week: We used the Independence Day weekend to watch one of our favorite sci-fi movies.

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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, Legal Fellows Jordan Murov-Goodman and Lyndsey Wajert, Policy Interns Abe Kenmore and Joey Oteng, and Legal Intern Sasha Peters.