News collectors in the US may soon have safeguards against government attempts to snoop on their data. Bipartisan House and Senate groups have revised the law, the PRESS Act (Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying), which limits the government’s ability to compel disclosures of data that could identify reporters’ sources. The Senate bill would extend exemptions and disclosure standards to cover email, phone records, and other information held by third parties.
The PRESS Act also requires the federal government to give reporters the opportunity to respond to data requests. Courts can still require disclosure if necessary to prevent terrorism, identify terrorists or prevent serious “imminent” violence. The Senate bill is the work of Richard Durbin, Mike Lee and Ron Wyden, while the equivalent in the House is from representatives Kevin Kiley and Jamie Raskin.
Sponsors identified the bill as essential to protecting First Amendment press freedoms. Leaks from anonymous sources help keep the government accountable, Wyden said. He added that surveillance like this deters reporters and sources who worry about retaliation. Lee, on the other hand, said the Act will also maintain the public’s “right to access information” and help it participate in a representative democracy.
The senators pointed to instances from both Democratic and Republican administrations where law enforcement subpoenaed data in a drive to obtain sources. More importantly, the Justice Department under Trump is known to have obtained call records and email logs from major media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times following an April 2017 report on how former FBI director James Comey handled investigations during the 2016 presidential election.
Journalist protection laws exist in 48 states and the District of Columbia, but there is no federal law. That loophole allows the Department of Justice and other government bodies to quietly obtain data from telecoms and other providers. The PRESS Act theoretically closes that loophole and reduces the chance of abuse.
There is no guarantee that the PRESS Act will reach President Biden’s desk and become law. Still, both camps in Congress are betting that bipartisan support will help. The House version passed “unanimously” in the previous session of Congress, Wyden’s office said.
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