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This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: March 29, 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.

The Reporters Committee publishes COVID-19 resources

At a time when the public is trying to sift through misinformation and stay up to date on accurate news about COVID-19, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has published resources featuring recommendations for journalists, legislators, and courts to ensure that the press and the public’s right of access to information is protected.

As government entities take necessary steps to curb the spread of the virus, reporters may have questions about how to navigate these changes. “Press freedom and government transparency during COVID-19” answers frequently asked questions on various topics, including “Emergency Powers and the Press,” “Open Meetings and Public Records,” and “Court Access.”

For example, the resources urge state and local emergency authorities to define news media organizations as “essential” or “life-sustaining” businesses in any “shelter-in-place” or lockdown orders. We call on government officials to provide as much advance notice to the public if public meetings are moving to online or telephonic formats, and urge officials to, when possible, record meetings and promptly make them available to the public online. They also advocate for courts to maintain filings and records and make them promptly available to the public electronically.

Our attorneys are actively tracking emergency measurespublic records and open meetings measures, and court access measures at the federal, state, and local levels.

As responses to the pandemic evolve, the Reporters Committee will continue to update these resources in real time. For our readers who have updates about government responses to COVID-19 that could impact newsgathering rights or public access, please submit them to media@rcfp.org. And as always, for specific legal questions or concerns, please reach out to the Reporters Committee’s hotline at hotline@rcfp.org.

— Lyndsey Wajert

Quick Hits

A new cybercrime bill that includes language that would amend and expand the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is raising concerns among civil liberties groups. Were it to pass with the CFAA expansion, the “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019” would amend several sections of the law, including a provision that could be used against computer security researchers who identify vulnerabilities in systems or software (an activity that resembles journalism, in many ways) and another that allows private companies to get broad civil orders to shut down “botnets.”

The editorial board of The Orange County Register has demanded the city of Fullerton, California, end its lawsuit against several local bloggers who the city alleges hacked their Dropbox account, calling the suit “anti-speech.” Most recently, the city secured a gag order against the bloggers, who run a site called Friends for Fullerton’s Future, preventing them from publishing documents obtained from the city’s Dropbox account, which was not protected by security credentials and was accessible by anyone on the internet. But this gag order was stayed in part by the appellate court pending resolution of the merits of the case. The Reporters Committee previously filed a brief in the case, explaining how the city’s expansive interpretation of the hacking laws could pose a severe threat to newsgathering.

Privacy commissioners in various countries are lifting data restrictions to help health officials use health and location data to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Markup wrote about steps that could be taken to better protect against “deanonymization” in large datasets (that is, when various pieces of otherwise anonymized data can be cross-referenced to identify a specific individual).

In an open letter, the publishers of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal called on Chinese officials to reverse their decision to revoke the press credentials for the news organizations’ China-based reporters.

Lawyers for Julian Assange last week applied for the WikiLeaks founder’s release on bail, citing the risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison. A judge denied the request on Wednesday.

The Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism has some suggestions for how news organizations with drones can capitalize on the decrease in pedestrian or vehicular traffic caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including examining the conditions of empty roads to demonstrate the possible need for infrastructure investments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declined to review a prior three-judge panel ruling that blocking critics on President Trump’s Twitter account, which he uses for official business, violated the First Amendment.

The Pentagon reportedly will not split its cloud-computing contract for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI project, between Microsoft and Amazon. Amazon has challenged the government’s decision to award the contract to Microsoft in court.

🤓 Smart reads 📖

Poynter offers a few helpful ways journalists reporting on the frontlines of this pandemic can de-stress. Take care of yourselves, but know that you are providing an essential service!

Gif of the Week: When weekly meetings involve slightly … smaller colleagues.


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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.