U.S. Markets

News organizations ask U.S. Labor Department to keep computers in data 'lockups'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawyers representing news organizations on Tuesday sent a letter to the U.S. Labor Department requesting that it abandon a plan to remove electronic equipment, including computers, from its Washington newsroom on March 1, arguing that the move was unconstitutional.

Lawyers from Holland & Knight, representing Reuters, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Dow Jones & Company and Market News said the reasons given by the Labor Department for the changes did not hold up to legal and factual scrutiny.

The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced the changes to its data “lockups” last month. BLS Commissioner William Beach said the changes were in line with recommendations in 2014 by the department’s Inspector General and were intended to keep data secure prior to public release, stay ahead of rapidly changing technology and remove the advantage of media in providing data to high-speed traders.

“The proposed changes, at a minimum, would be ineffectual at achieving the DOL’s stated goals and would result in an unconstitutional limitation on the media’s First Amendment protected right to newsgathering and dissemination,” the lawyers said. “Specifically, we request that the proposed changes not be implemented on March 1, 2020 and that the current rules governing the DOL Lockup be reinstated.”

The lawyers also expressed concern that the Labor Department had not “engaged in the public notice-and-comment process mandated by the Administrative Procedure Act,” before announcing the proposed changes. Under the new rules, reporters will only have a pen and pad to work on, and would have to dictate their stories to their offices after the embargo on the data lifts.

“Indeed, the traders who rely upon algorithms for their trades do not create an algorithm after receipt and analysis of economic data. Rather, algorithmic traders study the markets and create algorithms ahead of time,” the lawyers said.

“Lockup procedures designed to hinder publication of the data by attendees would do nothing to change that fact, but they would likely lead to greater time disparities that ultimately favor the algorithmic traders, as well as create unnecessary – and potentially devastating – security risks.”

Currently, media organizations send reporters to data “lockups” to prepare stories 30 to 60 minutes in advance of release, with the government controlling a communications switch to prevent an inadvertent early release.

The new changes would affect all BLS data, including the closely watched monthly employment report and consumer and producer inflation data. Data published by the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau and Bureau for Economic Analysis (BEA) will also be affected. Reports from these agencies, including the monthly retail sales and quarterly gross domestic product, are released at the Labor Department’s newsroom.

Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci