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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: June 28, 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.

Journalists found guilty of ‘cyber libel’ in Philippines

In a case with serious implications for newsgathering worldwide, a trial court in the Philippines recently found journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of “cyber libel.”

The case stemmed from a 2012 article by Santos, which accused a prominent businessman of being involved in human trafficking and illegal drug activity and linked him to the then-Chief Justice of the Philippines Supreme Court. Though the article was published months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which criminalizes libel “committed through a computer system,” came into effect, prosecutors argued that the story was “republished” when an update was made in 2014 to fix a typo.

Santos and Ressa, the founder and CEO of Rappler, await their sentence of up to six years in prison but are out on bail while their appeal is pending. They have each been ordered to pay 400,000 Phillipine pesos (about $8,000) in moral and exemplary damages.

The outcome of the case highlights the hazards of reporting in the Philippines, which is ranked among the most dangerous countries for journalists, according to the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Rappler, an independent news organization, has extensively covered President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos since Duterte took office in June 2016.

The enforcement of the cyber libel law has also led to the silencing of speech outside the borders of the Philippines. Earlier this year, the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment ordered the deportation of a Filipino woman from Taiwan, where she worked as a caregiver, so she could be prosecuted under the law. Rappler reported that a DOLE official dealing with the case said the woman posted “nasty and malevolent materials against President Duterte on Facebook, intended to cause hatred amidst the global health crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Further, the case demonstrates how governments can rely on cybercrime laws to silence journalists and their sources. In the U.S., for example, many have raised concerns that the vague and overbroad Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could be misused against data journalists and others.

While the use of libel law in an attempt to silence the press is not a new phenomenon (including in the United States), the case involving Ressa and Santos illustrates an especially troubling misuse of a new criminal cyber libel law to intimidate journalists and chill reporting on government. Governments that implement and abuse cybercrime laws chill speech, keeping journalists from doing their work and, in turn, squelch public access to accurate information.

— Sasha Peters

Quick Hits

The Open Technology Fund and several of its board members filed suit on Wednesday against the recently confirmed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, alleging that he had no statutory authority to fire the top OTF officers and directors and that he undermined the independence of agency-funded networks including Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. The OTF funds anti-censorship technology to help the agency’s content reach audiences in authoritarian countries with restrictive internet policies. On Friday, the Reporters Committee published a special analysis stressing the need to protect publicly funded media’s editorial independence, particularly when reporting on high-profile, politically sensitive stories.

Former Pentagon counterterrorism analyst Henry Kyle Frese was recently sentenced to 30 months in prison by a federal judge for transmission of top-secret national defense information. Frese was accused last year of passing classified information to a reporter, and pled guilty to the charges.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently held in IMDb.com, Inc. v. Becerra that a California statute that prohibits websites from reporting entertainment professionals’ ages and birthdays is unconstitutional. The Court held that the law is a content-based restriction on speech that could not survive strict scrutiny. The Reporters Committee joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case.

According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, the Internal Revenue Service bought cell phone location data in an effort to track down individuals being investigated for tax crimes. Because the IRS was seeking GPS data, the agency argued it was not subject to a recent Supreme Court decision requiring a warrant for more than seven days of cell site location information. The IRS ended up dropping its subscription to the data, sold by marketing firm Venntel, after a year of failing to produce any leads.

On Monday, Google announced that it added a fact-checking feature to Google Image Search results. Some thumbnail images will now have a “Fact Check” label on them, and tapping on the thumbnail will produce a summary of the fact check. While Google has previously added “Fact Check” labels on web search results, news results, and YouTube videos, this is the company’s first foray into labeling fact-checked images en masse.

Amnesty International reported that a Moroccan journalist’s phone was likely targeted by the NSO Group’s spyware through a so-called “network injection,” which allows attackers to redirect browsers and apps to sites under their control. Amnesty’s report offers technical advice for avoiding this type of security breach.

In an effort to address the potential proliferation of “deepfakes” on social media platforms, Facebook has released a database of more than 100,000 deepfake clips that artificial intelligence tools can study to help automatically detect manipulated media.

🤓 Smart reads 📖

The classification system is in disrepair, according to a recent report by the Information Security Oversight Office. A combination of outdated review practices and political abuse has led to an increasingly dysfunctional system.

This piece from the Brookings Institution takes a critical look at the privatization of public health responses to COVID-19, mainly by tech firms that disregard user privacy, “exacerbate preexisting patterns of inequity,” and amplify misinformation.

Gif of the Week: Given that it’s officially summer, we hope you are staying cool out there.


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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.