US withdrawal from Iranian media sites sets thorny precedent

In a surprise action on Tuesday, the United States government seized more than 30 domains from websites connected to Iranian government, disrupting access to several state-supported media. U.S. officials said the action resulted from terrorist disinformation disseminated on the sites and their violation of sanctions. But press freedom advocates warn that the cuts have much broader implications for free speech rights and foreign relations.

The sites concerned included the British and Arab media Press TV and Al-Alam, and others such as the Yemeni Houthi channel Al-Masirah TV. They were all led by the Islamic Union of Iranian Radio and Television. The DoJ also dismantled three sites associated with the Iraqi paramilitary group Kata’ib Hezbollah, which enjoys Iranian support. The move continues a controversial precedent set by the Trump administration, made all the more worrying by the rambling and seemingly uncoordinated nature of the operation.

“It’s really not clear why the US government acted on these particular sites and why now, or what their standard of intervention is,” says Evelyne Douek, scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and lecturer at Harvard Law School. “One of the fundamental principles of the right to freedom of expression is that government restrictions on expression must be transparent and justified, and this does not happen as much as it should.”

The operation comes as the Biden administration attempts to negotiate with Tehran, including President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, over Iran’s nuclear program and support for proxy militias across the Middle East. But the seizures of website domains seemed poorly coordinated, with site hits coming and going for hours. Notices on the homepages of the affected sites indicated that the domain had been seized by the Office of Industry and Security of the United States Department of Commerce, the Office of Export Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. . However, other parts of some sites continued to function early on. The Justice Department had previously neither recognized nor confirmed the initiative for hours after internet users began to notice the impacts.

“Elements of the Iranian government … disguised as news organizations or media, have targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malicious influence operations,” the Department of Justice wrote in a statement Tuesday evening. declaration. “? 3 3 sites seized today? put the sites in violation of the sanctions.

The operation was not the first time U.S. government agencies have targeted Information sites supported by the Iranian state. But domain foreclosures can only disrupt service for a while, and sites usually come back with a changed URL. Press TV quickly said on Tuesday that it had transitioned from a “.com” address to an “.ir” address, which would not be managed by a domain registrar based in the United States.

“This is part of a larger trend since Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions against Iran were implemented to remove certain Iranian sites by the Department of Justice and Treasury, as well as platforms like Twitter and Instagram to remove some users, ”said Narges Bajoghli, an assistant. Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

US-based social media companies have struggled to cope with Iranian disinformation campaigns on their platforms and have more and more focused on withdrawals to limit the impact on their users. The DoJ already has worked with Google, Facebook and Twitter to watch and Iranian sites spreading disinformation In 2020, the Trump administration seized domains from .com versions of Fars News Agency, the daily IRAN and dozens of other areas that US officials have said are being used to spread illegal disinformation. The DoJ has not indicated whether it is working with social media companies during this week’s round of cuts.

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