Shield the Sources, Shield the Telecoms

The past couple of days have been interesting, to say the least, when looking at recent shifts and decisions in American legislatures. Specifically, the House is looking to shield bloggers from federal investigations by providing them with the same protections as reporters, and that after the telecommunication companies that ‘theoretically’ (read: actually) cooperated with NSA spying activities have refused to cooperate with Congressional investigations that they have been let off the hook. Let’s get into it.

Federal Journalists and Professional Bloggers Shielded

The US has had a long history of journalistic freedoms, but in the face of recent technological advances they have refused to extend those freedoms to users of new journalistic mediums. Bloggers, in particular, are becoming a more and more important source of information in the US – some dedicate their lives to blogging and use it for professional gain. Until recently they have (typically) been refused the same status as traditional journalists, which has made it risky for bloggers to refuse to disclose their sources if hauled into courts of law.

This stance might shift with the coming of the Free Flow of Information Act , which would “offer protection of sources and documents to journalists (including professional bloggers) caught up in federal investigations, and could put an end to images of reporters led from court in handcuffs after refusing to testify.” (Source) Despite the fact that it has cleared the House President Bush may refuse to sign it, citing concerns that it would limit or preclude investigations of criminal events because authorities could not effectively gather facts needed for prosecution.

I think (optimistically) what this shows is that it is possible for law to ‘catch up’ to technology – laws can be developed that recognize new digital mediums are oftentimes extensions of past activities. That said, simple extensions are oftentimes not enough; the decentralized nature of digital communications creates a raft of difficulties in asserting these laws, should law enforcement try to evade the spirit of the law when pursuing suspects. That said, I don’t know how hard law enforcement really has to try to evade the spirit of the law given NSA spy activities . . .

Shielding the Telecoms

If you hadn’t heard, the NSA ran and continues to run some reasonably invasive covert surveillance right now . They’re (effectively) piping into major American telecommunications hubs and recording and/or analyzing all traffic that is not purely American traffic. As a massive amount of the world’s digital traffic passes through American hubs, this is scary – your communications are likely being monitored, and it’s uncertain as to what, exactly, is being done with the data collected.

In response to this activity, Congress has begun looking into the NSA spy operation. (As a note: Congress is concerned because Americans are being surveyed – they aren’t terribly worried about the surveillance of non-Americans.) After repeated discussions on the Hill, Congress has effectively given up on their hopes to learn anything from the telecommunications companies that are expected to be involved – AT&T in particular has refused on the basis that sharing their information of the project, were the project to exist, would be in violation of state secrets privilege – and has just turned to the executive branch to extract information.

While I can’t be certain, I’ll bet that Congress gets about as much from the executive as from the American corporations they have been pressuring; the NSA wiretaps will continue, and God knows what will be done with the information. It’s this fear or uncertainty of what will be done with the information that is the real issue – it creates an environment where peoples’ personal concerns and shames threaten to limit their free speech, the lifeblood of a democracy. While I hope that the next president would abolish the program, I honestly have to wonder if the current American candidates would, if they weren’t be forced to do so.