The way the U.S. government releases sensitive economic data was under scrutiny on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with lawmakers questioning a new policy that would put the Department of Labor in charge of technology used to release statistics.
Representatives from media organizations and press advocacy groups told members of the House of Representative's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that changes contemplated by the Labor Department would make data less secure and raise First Amendment concerns. However, witnesses noted that discussions are underway for a compromise that could satisfy critics.
In April, the Department of Labor revealed new procedures for its so-called "lock-up" room for releasing economic data. The changes affect credentialing for the data releases and puts all technology used for the release in the hands of the government.
The lock-up room is used to release sensitive economic data, like the monthly employment report. Reporters are literally locked into a room at the Labor Department with no communication to the outside world. They are then given early access to information in order to prepare stories based on the statistics. These reports are all released simultaneously at the appropriate time.
Traditionally, media organizations provided their own computers and communication equipment from the lock-up. Under the new policy, the Department of Labor will take over all the technology in the lock-up starting on June 15. The credentialing changes will be put in place starting July 6.
Defenders of the new policy say that recent technology advances make it more difficult to keep the data secure. Also, the rise of automated trading on Wall Street makes it possible that some firms could have an advantage in reacting to new economic information.
At the hearing, representatives of media firms Bloomberg and Reuters said that discussions are underway with the Labor Department over a compromise. While a general understanding has been reached between the technology staffs of the news companies and of the Department of Labor, no firm deal has been secured.
Daniel Moss, representing Bloomberg News, said that if a deal has not been reached by the June 15 change-over date, then media organizations could look to secure a legal injunction.
Overall, advocates for the press criticized the Labor Department's process in arriving at the new rules.
Rob Doherty, appearing for Reuters News, called the DOL's action "dramatic" and said it was "announced without any advance notice." Meanwhile, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the move "bewildering" and detailed the dangers of having the government in control of equipment used to produce news reports.
Critics of the policy also pointed out that the changes came as a result of report prepared by a consulting firm that has not been made public.
Echoing these concerns, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) worried about the possibility that economic reports would become government "propaganda" under the new system.
In prepared remarks, Issa also labeled the change in policy as "wrong headed" and called on President Barack Obama to take action to reverse the policy.
"The president is ultimately responsible when a cabinet department embarks on an initiative that runs counter to both his own promises and the First Amendment," he said.
by RTT Staff Writer
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