News groups protest govt. limits on use of economic data

CHRISTOPHER RUGABER

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Associated Press and four other news organizations on Tuesday urged the Labor Department to reverse its decision last month to restrict news agencies' use of economic data.

In a joint letter, the AP, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, Market News and Reuters asserted that the changes the department announced Jan. 16 would make the economic data releases less secure and less useful to the public. The news organizations also said the department's new policy would fail to meet its stated objective of leveling the playing field between high-speed investment firms, which trade off the data, and the general public.

Last month, the Labor Department announced that beginning March 1, it would remove computers from a secure room in which reporters are given an early look at government economic reports, including highly watched reports on hiring, retail sales and inflation.

For years, reporters have been able to access those reports in a so-called “lockup” room, a half-hour or an hour before the general public. The lockups allow reporters to review the data releases, question government officials and write draft versions of news articles before the data is publicly released.

Reporters must surrender their cellphones and other electronic devices before entering the lockup rooms to prevent any early transmission of the information. The letter sent Tuesday by the news organizations notes that the early access enables reporters to ensure the accuracy of their news reports and provide better context for the economic data once it is published.

The AP and some other signatories on Tuesday's letter also transmit data to high-speed trading firms, for a fee, once the data is released to the public. The Labor Department had suggested that this action gave those firms an investing advantage over the general public.

The news organizations' letter asserted, though, that Labor's changes would slow the ability of news agencies to publish the information to the general public by limiting reporters' access to computers, while having little impact on investment firms.

“Due to the speed of modern-day supercomputers the reality is that the raw data will be scraped from the (department's) website and, thus, the changes will have little, if any, effect on the perceived advantage to algorithmic traders,” the news agencies' letter said. “Instead, it will increase the advantage that algorithmic traders have by impeding Lockup attendees’ ability to disseminate their analyses of the data.”

A Labor Department spokesman was not immediately able to comment on the letter.

The changes to the lockup procedures would also likely increase traffic to the department's websites and risk overloading them, the news agencies said, potentially creating a logjam that could make the data inaccessible to the public.

In 2018, after the Agriculture Department eliminated its lockups, its website became inaccessible on two occasions when it released market-moving grain reports, the news agencies said in their letter.

“The deluge of traffic crippled the website and created the opportunity for those few who acquired the data to achieve tremendous profits,” the letter said.

The internet generally is also less secure from hackers than are the secure lines that the news agencies use to transmit their stories and data, the letter argued.