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Judge blocks government agencies from most communication with tech companies

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A federal judge has blocked some government agencies and Biden administration officials from communicating with tech companies.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Government officials say they work with social media companies to stop criminal activity like child abuse and terrorism. In recent years, the agencies also asked for better policing of misinformation on COVID vaccines and election interference. Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri sued over that, arguing the government was suppressing conservative viewpoints.

MARTIN: Cat Zakrzewski is a tech policy reporter with The Washington Post, and she's with us now to tell us more about it. Cat, good morning. Thanks for being here.

CAT ZAKRZEWSKI: Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: This just seems like an extraordinary development. I just can't think of another instance where government officials were told they could not talk to key players in an industry. So just tell us, what's the basis for it?

ZAKRZEWSKI: For years, Republicans have argued that social media companies' policies to address disinformation related to elections and public health have resulted in unfair censorship of their views. The Republican AGs brought those arguments to court, subpoenaing thousands of emails between Biden officials and tech companies that they say showed illegal collusion between the administration and the tech industry. But the Biden administration disputes these claims, and they've argued that those communications actually reflect the government using its bully pulpit to promote accurate information in the face of foreign interference in elections and a deadly pandemic.

MARTIN: What do we know about what this ruling means for how the government operates now?

ZAKRZEWSKI: So this order puts limits on executive agencies across the government. This affects the Department of Justice, the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC. It also affects more than a dozen individual officials with a lot of power over various institutions related to elections and public health, including the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jen Easterly, who leads the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

And in addition to limiting the government's communications with tech companies, the judge also prohibited agencies and officials from, quote, "collaborating" with key academic groups that focus on social media. These are groups like the Election Integrity Partnership, academics who work out of Stanford and University of Washington on issues like voter suppression and public health disinformation. And I just want to point out that the judge did make some exceptions for communications in this order, including to allow government officials to warn the tech companies of potential national security threats, criminal activity or voter suppression.

MARTIN: Why are the plaintiffs going after government officials and government agencies and these academic researchers? Why not sue the social media companies directly?

ZAKRZEWSKI: Well, they've tried that before, and it didn't work. The tech companies effectively argued that they have a First Amendment right to decide what appears on their sites. So we've really seen a new twist in Republicans complaints now focusing instead on the federal government's role in that process.

MARTIN: There would seem to be profound implications for the First Amendment and free speech. We'll have to talk more about that in the future. That's Cat Zakrzewski. She's a tech policy reporter with The Washington Post. Cat, thank you so much.

ZAKRZEWSKI: Thank you. * Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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