The Fight for Domestic News Drones

On Tuesday, more than a dozen notable news organizations including The New York Times Company, Scipps Media, Hearst, and the National Press Club filed a brief with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over the ban on commercial, news-gathering, and small drones. The group specifically objected to the $10,000 fine currently hanging over photographer Raphael Pirker, who flew a drone for commercial purposes in defiance of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines in 2011.

Currently, "hobbyists" can fly drones or model aircraft below 400 feet, but most everyone else needs permission before they take flight. The FAA has yet to write out their rules for all drone integration into domestic airspace, though they are scheduled to next year, but news is fast, and the government is slow. And commercial and news media drones were banned in 2007, even though the media traditionally has more protections in their jobs than other for-profit outlets do.

A federal judge with the NTSB in March actually ruled that the FAA cannot enforce their ban because they don’t have legal authority over small aircraft. (And if they did, Judge Patrick Geraghty wrote that means "a flight in the air of a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the operator to" the same regulations.) The FAA appealed, so that decision is stayed and the ban remains. But in the last week, in spite of the weird feelings so many people have about drones as dystopian tools of oppression and assassination, this clunky ban has provoked some backlash. The journalists who filed the brief on Tuesday argued that rigid restrictions on newsgathering fly in the face of the First Amendment. And it’s hard to blame them for thinking so.

Drones are a terrific tool for journalists, so their displeasure at the fine hanging over Pirker — and its chilling effect — is natural. Drones are cheap, relatively easy to use, and they can be sent where people can’t go. Already, journalists the world over (and many countries are more lax in their regulations — the BBC now has a news drone, for example) have used drones to film protests, disasters, and all manner of dangerous and difficult to get to news events. Last week, stormchaser Brian Emfinger shot Arkansas tornado damage with a drone. He then handed it over to a local news stations, and now the FAA is looking into a fine. But like its other hamfisted prohibitions on use of an object, the government is already losing its war on drones — and that backlash may increase if they choose to go after Emfinger for daring to get his footage.

By contrast, on Monday, Zion National Park in Utah and Yosemite National Park in California banned even hobby drones. The appeal of photographing stunning scenes of nature from above is clear, but so is the desire to not disturb everyone else’s communing with nature with the loud humming and buzzing sounds small, cheap drones make.

One excessive ban on newsgathering, one understandable one on droning all over nature’s splendor — but the place drones have in the US airspace is still an enormous question mark. The only thing more disturbing than a life of endless bzzzzzzz sounds as drones flock around us all might be the day even cheap ones become silent and sneaky. Or, when insect-sized ones become affordable for the masses. Odds are, we will end up as a country where drones are entirely banned from certain areas. National parks — as tempting a thought as making your own nature documentary might be — may be just such a place.

But as someone who fully understands the Luddite impulse in the face of brave new technology — indeed as someone who constantly stares at her Smartphone and thinks about ditching it for a sketchy "burner" phone, let me say that we should let journalists and filmmakers and most other private citizens use drones (fairly) freely. We should definitely not embrace alarmed, unwise legislation like, say, Louisiana’s recently-introduced S.B. 356, which would fine and/or imprison individuals for using drones to photograph public infrastructure without permission.

Unless we’re talking nuclear weapons, or maybe cruise missiles, most objects used for bad ends by the state are not in themselves capable of only that. Democrats who endlessly try to ban or restrict firearms rarely, if ever, mention how soldiers and cops use them to get away with murder, yet millions of legal gun owners use them responsibly. Libertarians in particular have crowed about the freedom from state prohibition — including gun control — that 3D printers might offer. Liberals are by contrast terrified of the plastic gun hellscape they are sure is coming.

The humble camera can be used by us or against us, depending who is filming. Hell, the voluntary adoption of the Smartphone is arguably one of the biggest boons for the state, considering the ease with which they track our movements with metadata (and help themselves to the content of these phones, swearing all the time that it’s not the same as Constitutionally-protected papers). But the camera on every iPhone or IPhone can be turned back against agents of the government. This is no panacea, but filming is better than only being filmed.

What is a drone? It’s a tool – a potentially dangerous tool, but definitely a useful one. And waiting for state permission to see what a useful tool can do is never going to result in great inventions or solutions to human problems. Human ingenuity keeps going forward – unless we have some sort of terrifying Pol Pot/A Canticle for Leibowitz year zero situation – and the power of fearsome technology in the hands of the state can be lessened when it’s in the hands of everyone else as well. What else is there to do but accept the existence of drones, and try to keep them out of the hands of government as much as possible? Hundreds of public entities are already using drones. They’re on the border, and they’re being used by scores of other public agencies. We need to stop that, or heavily restrict it, but stop being so terrified of the technology itself.

Even Judge Andrew Napolitano, a staunch advocate for small government who has previously been skittish about domestic drones, supports the news media groups’ brief. On Wednesday afternoon, he told Shepard Smith on the latter’s Fox News program that “the privacy laws are already in place” to protect people from private drone snooping. Smith seemed to agree. “If you can use it to kill people, why can’t I use it to take pictures?” he mused. Indeed.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

Read more by Lucy Steigerwald

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.