The FBI last week withdrew a request
turn over identifying information about its readers as part of an investigation into a shootout in southern Florida that killed two agents and wounded three others. Gannett, the newspaper's
publisher, was right to contest the FBI's demands and protect the privacy of readers.
The agency in April served Gannett with a subpoena asking for information about people who had
read an USA Today story about the shooting on the paper's site. The FBI sought the unique internet protocol (IP) addresses and mobile phone information of those readers during a 35-minute
window on the day of the shooting.
The story recounted how five FBI agents had been shot
as they served a warrant in a child pornography
case in Sunrise, Florida, a town outside Fort Lauderdale, on Feb. 2. Authorities said David Lee Huber used a doorbell camera to watch the FBI agents arrive at his apartment. He opened fire on them,
and was killed during the shootout.
It wasn't clear why the FBI wanted the information about USA Today's web visitors as part of its investigation. The agency
didn’t ask for the names of readers, but the IP and mobile information may have helped to identify them. Perhaps the FBI suspected someone else was involved with Huber or behaved suspiciously
after the shooting.
Gannett argued against the subpoena on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The publisher also claimed the request violated the Justice Department
rules against forcing information out of the press.
“Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the First Amendment,"
Maribel Perez Wadsworth, stated USA Today's publisher. "The FBI's subpoena asks for private information about readers of our journalism.”
The Justice Department
withdrew the subpoena after obtaining information about an alleged child sexual exploitation offender through other means. In response, Gannett withdrew a motion that asked a federal judge to
invalidate the subpoena.
Fortunately, Gannett wasn't compelled to turn over identifying information about its web visitors. Such an action would have been a terrible precedent
and incredibly damaging to the company and other publishers.
People should be able to read the news without fear they will become targets of a federal investigation. Those concerns would have a
chilling effect on web traffic and hurt publishers that depend on it for revenue.