DOJ Seizes Domains, Claiming They Pushed Iranian Disinformation; Should Raise 1st Amendment Concerns

from the train-has-left-the-station dept

For about a decade now we’ve been questioning why the government is allowed to seize domains over claims of illegal behavior happening on a website. It seems to us that seizing a website is the equivalent of seizing a printing press or books — both of which would be deemed clear 1st Amendment violations. Unfortunately, even when those seizures have proven to be for made up reasons, no one has been able to challenge the underlying ability of the government to seize domains. And now it seems to happen all the time. And even if you believe the websites in question are doing something bad, seizing the websites is problematic.

The latest such case is the Justice Department announcing that it had seized a bunch of domains pushing disinformation on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The United States has seized 92 domain names that were unlawfully used by Iran?s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to engage in a global disinformation campaign, announced the Department of Justice.

According to the seizure documents, four of the domains purported to be genuine news outlets but were actually controlled by the IRGC and targeted the United States for the spread of Iranian propaganda to influence United States domestic and foreign policy in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and the remainder spread Iranian propaganda to other parts of the world. In addition, the seizure documents describe how all 92 domains were being used in violation of U.S. sanctions targeting both the Government of Iran and the IRGC.

According to reporter Kevin Collier, who used the Wayback Machine to check out some of these sites, they seemed like mostly junk with little US social media presence.

Even so, and even if we’re concerned about foreign disinformation campaigns targeting the US, it still makes me nervous when the US government feels that it can just go in and seize entire domains. It strikes me as the thing that can create blowback as well. The US has certainly been involved in foreign propaganda as well — and would we want foreign governments seizing the assets of, say, Voice of America?

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Comments on “DOJ Seizes Domains, Claiming They Pushed Iranian Disinformation; Should Raise 1st Amendment Concerns”

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34 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

What is there to raise? Like the rest of the amendments, the constitution as a whole, our rights and freedoms, they are all being ignored, while the country becomes one massive police state! Anything that isn’t liked is stopped, removed, arrested or killed! And we’re supposed to be the best country on the Planet, the country that is supposed to be a beacon shining on privacy, freedom and human rights, the first nation to kick off when people elsewhere are being abused, a beacon for the rest to follow! We have more abuse here on a daily basis than just about anywhere! And we’re still supposed to be proud to call ourselves Americans! Right!

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"And we’re supposed to be the best country on the Planet, the country that is supposed to be a beacon shining on privacy, freedom and human rights, the first nation to kick off when people elsewhere are being abused, a beacon for the rest to follow!"

You haven’t lived up to those ideals at any point during my lifetime, and I’m in my 40s…

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"And we’re supposed to be the best country on the Planet, the country that is supposed to be a beacon shining on privacy, freedom and human rights, the first nation to kick off when people elsewhere are being abused, a beacon for the rest to follow!"

It took a civil war for slavery to end in the US – and even then the winning side was very keen on keeping black people as second-class citizens, which is why civil rights movements have, time and time again, had to march and riot for black people to obtain the same rights as everyone else. Hell, they’re not even there yet.

World war 1 didn’t see US participation until the kaiser started sinking the US merchant fleet.

World War 2? Hitler had almost all of europe and was screaming "Today Europe, tomorrow, the world" while Washington was still deadlocked about whether to go to war or not. It wasn’t until one of the axis mounted a full strike on a US base that the US meandered into the war.

Iran under the ayatollah and Iraq under Saddam wouldn’t even exist without direct US intervention. Bin Laden was the US weapon in afghanistan against the russians until Al-quaeda decided "infidel invaders" also included americans.

At best the US can be described as being the least harmful of the international would-be hegemons.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned? It’s a bnit like when you’re being troubled by a gang of sick psychos and the cops are all on the take the one you make nice with is Vinnie The Knife of the mob. At least the Godfather has standards – even if it means you pay the protection racket forever.

The US being the beacon of privacy, freedom and human rights is a myth only americans ever believed, because that’s what their textbnooks all say. Then some of them read real history and end up being scolded as "unamerican" when they dare venture that perhaps US history doesn’t really describe the paragon of humanitarianism they grew up to hearing about.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Which is a hell of a thing to feel you don’t have to mention as there’s so many other examples of why he’s wrong.."

Fortunately for the collectors of historical shit-shows the US has managed to link its more monstrous messes fairly well. Iran-Contras, for instance is just typical of the way a failed US intelligence "effort" spans across continents.

But yea. The US was never the chap in the white hat. Never held moral ground. They were simply less harmful than, for instance, the USSR. And when the soviet union collapsed the US suddenly didn’t have a much badder guy to hide behind and now it’s failings appear in stark contrast.

I argue that’s one of the reasons as to why the US government has been desperate to come up with a Malicious Big Bad everyone can be scared of so they stop questioning what Washington is doing all the time. And China or Russia today just don’t fill these roles well since arguably they are about on par with the US when it comes to international or internal malfeasance.

quantumfoam says:

Do Due Process

=> "we’ve been questioning why the government is allowed to seize domains over claims of illegal behavior happening on a website."

Yeah, domain owners are certainly entitled to judicial due process before and after any seizure, especially a valid court warrant for any seizure.

To "seize a US dolman" the government needs the ‘Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ (ICANN) to cooperate.
ICANN acts illegally if it enables a warrantless seizure of a web domain.

This recent Iran related 92 domains seizure gets very complicated because foreign governments do not have US Constitutional rights.
US Federal Executive Branch seems to have very broad legal authority when dealing with Iran:

"Pursuant to the ‘International Emergency Economic Powers Act’ (IEEPA), unauthorized exports of goods, technology or services to Iran, directly or indirectly from the United States or by a United States person are prohibited. Pursuant to the IEEPA, the Secretary of the Treasury promulgated the ‘Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations’ (ITSR) that prohibit the provision of services to the Government of Iran without a license. The Department of Treasury may issue a license through its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)."

/////

Anonymous Coward says:

J. Edgar Hoover Would Be Proud

Here in the U.S. of Trumpica, we punish people we don’t like without regard to laws. We torture and murder immigrants. We encourage the murder of black people by cops and private citizens. Our jack-booted minions attack and kidnap protesters. We condemn people to death by depriving them of medical care and unnecessarily subjecting them to deadly disease. We promote the enslavement of women by forcing them to bring unwanted pregnancies to full term. Given those offenses, of course something as meek as seizures of websites is on our agenda.

All of these violations garner support by a deplorably pro-hate third of our citizenry, and, if the other two-thirds object too strenuously, we can simply lie and/or introduce some new, outrageous distraction to change the subject, knowing that tactic offers a never-ending cycle of misdirections.

Best of all, by playing to the worst elements of human nature, e.g., false reasoning such as "it’s good when bad things happen to bad people," the appeal of "Make America Hate Again" insidiously infiltrates the minds of the usually non-deplorable as well.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: !st Admendment

"Please correct me here if I fail to understand my rights."

The way the constitutional amendments are formulated it’s rather that it describes what the US government is not allowed to do to anyone – or anywhere.

As the AC describes, what this means in practice is another kettle of fish completely. To being with, "unconstitutional" only means SCOTUS can, if they choose to hear the case, overturn the legislation enabling the US government to perform <whatever>.

And that’s a big if, when the court currently holds a supermajority I wouldn’t trust to object if the current administration decided to build a sequestration camp for every uppity black person in the US and smack "Arbeit Macht Frei" at the entrance of it.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: On a scale of 0 to 100 ...

"How do we know the US government is right and not their Iranian counterpart?"

Well, it’s a hard case to make; when so many of their accusations hold factual truth – the US supporting the corrupt shah, the US selling Saddam all the chemical weapons he used on Iranian troops and the kurds, the US supporting anti-iran guerilla movements, etc…
…it makes it much harder to say which parts are just pure anti-american propaganda.

Anonymous Coward says:

Presumably the logic is that the Iranian government’s domain authority can issue domains to their propagandists. It’s not like the websites went down or anything.

Which makes the whole exercise, and any argument about it, pretty close to pointlessly distracting. Now can’t we get back to that whole bit about Facebook having too much power, so we need to modify Sec230 in 57 different ways–simultaneously?

Adrian Lopez says:

They’re saying the domains were seized because "unauthorized exports of goods, technology or services to Iran, directly or indirectly from the United States or by a United States person are prohibited." Does that mean the domains were registered with U.S.-based registrars against export restrictions, or is the United States government claiming the authority to seize any non-country specific domain regardless of where it might be registered?

While speech-based seizures are always problematic, prohibitions against doing business with Iran probably don’t violate the First Amendment. What worries me is that the U.S. government may be seizing domains registered outside the U.S. Imagine if other countries joined in and did that.

PaulT (profile) says:

"Does that mean the domains were registered with U.S.-based registrars against export restrictions, or is the United States government claiming the authority to seize any non-country specific domain regardless of where it might be registered?"

Good questions, and that’s why a list is usually handy in these situations. Unfortunately for the DOJ, the problem tends to be that once a full list is seen, it’s quite easy to spot sites that should not have been taken down having their property removed. But, it seems that the full list is not currently available.

But, looking through a few of the examples referenced in the linked articles – they’re registered through different US based registrars but all have privacy protections so we can’t see who actually bought it. Which means, we don’t know the answer to a simple question – were these domains bought by Iranian citizens, or were they bought through 3rd parties who then allowed the domains to be used by Iran.

A small difference, but one that’s extremely important when discussing who the party was that actually allowed the domain to be used in Iran. If the domain was bought through, say, Verisign, then the domain was pointed at 3rd party domain servers that are not under embargo, then pointed from there to an Iran IP there’s little they can do about that without changing the way DNS works. But, they so have to follow DOJ orders, even if (as has happened in the past) it’s a clearly innocent site that doesn’t fit the takedown criteria.

"What worries me is that the U.S. government may be seizing domains registered outside the U.S. Imagine if other countries joined in and did that."

The examples I’m seeing suggests this is not the case with these specific orders, but would it surprise anyone if it were?

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