DOJ Seizes Iranian News Org Websites; Raising Many Questions

from the seems-like-a-problem dept

Over the years, we’ve had many, many concerns about the US government seizing websites as it generally raises 1st Amendment issues (it’s not unlike seizing a printing press). Of course, non-US citizens outside the US are not protected by the 1st Amendment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned when the US government seizes news websites tied to foreign governments, even those with hostile interests to the US, like Iran. But that’s exactly what happened.

When people first started tweeting about this, and showing the graphic that had replaced the websites, many people insisted that it was actually a hack rather than a US government takedown, but the DOJ has now confirmed that they did, in fact, seize these sites.

The DOJ claims they actually grabbed 33 such websites:

Today, pursuant to court orders, the United States seized 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and three websites operated by Kata?ib Hizballah (KH), in violation of U.S. sanctions.

On Oct. 22, 2020, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated IRTVU as a Specially Designated National (SDN) for being owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC). SDNs are prohibited from obtaining services, including website and domain services, in the United States without an OFAC license. According to OFAC, the designation of IRTVU as an SDN was in response to the Iranian regime targeting the United States? electoral process with brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading U.S. voters. OFAC?s announcement explained that components of the government of Iran, to include IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States to with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations. 33 of the websites seized today were operated by IRTVU. The 33 domains are owned by a United States company. IRTVU did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to utilizing the domain names.

Three additional websites seized today were operated by KH. On July 2, 2009, OFAC designated KH an SDN, and the Department of State designated KH a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The announcements described KH as an Iraqi terrorist organization that committed, directed, supported or posed a significant risk of committing acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. OFAC further explained that the IRGC provides lethal support to KH and other Iraqi Shia militia groups who target and kill Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. The three domains operated by KH were owned by a United States company. KH did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to utilizing the domain names.

Of course, just last fall we had a similar story of the US government seizing domains that it said were spreading Iranian disinformation. We were concerned then and we remain concerned now.

First off, as Jameel Jaffer notes, while foreign governments have no right to spread disinformation, the 1st Amendment also does cover a right to receive information from abroad, and it seems like this could violate that.

But, even more to the point, this seems unlikely to end well. Governments seizing websites seems like the kind of thing that could escalate in ways that will backfire. Perhaps US companies will be protected, with most of their sites registered and hosted in the US, but especially with regards to some more exotic top level domains, that are technically country codes of foreign countries, you could certainly see efforts to similarly seize the domains of US companies in retaliation.

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Comments on “DOJ Seizes Iranian News Org Websites; Raising Many Questions”

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39 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: ????

yeah, the US Government actively overthrew the legitimate government of Iran in the 1950’s.

Federal politicians have clearly escalted their quest to control the American public by controlling what that public can see and hear.
Seizure of U.S. domestic web sites has already occurred and will blossom dramatically.
Government attacks against U.S. tech companies are everywhere.

And just who elected the smug bureaucrats at the ridiculou "Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)" to decide things for you and me?
Which idiot federal judge ordered the seizure of these websites?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Rocky says:

Re: Re: ????

yeah, the US Government actively overthrew the legitimate government of Iran in the 1950’s.

There’s one caveat here, they did so at the behest of the British government after the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was nationalized in 1951 by Mohammad Mossadegh, the newly elected prime minister of Iran.

The whole chain of events started in 1908 when William Knox D’Arcy wrangled a deal (he bribed some officials) from the Iranian monarchy that gave him a monopoly on all things related to oil in Iran. Iran would get 16% of any profits, but nowhere in the contract was it specified that Iran could review his accounting. The contract was later sold to the British and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was born, which proceeded to rob the Iranians blind.

This continued up to the 50’s, when there was a surge of nationalism which led to Mossadegh being elected to prime minister with the promise that he would "take back our oil", hence the nationalizing of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in ’51.

The British couldn’t let this stand since a very large part of the economy depended on the Iranian oil flowing through them, so they blockaded Iran and froze any Iranian accounts in British banks in the hope that Mossadegh would reverse his decision. This of course just pissed of the Iranians even more and didn’t change anything.

It’s here the British went to FDR asking for help disposing Mossadegh, which resulted in CIA’s first operation (Operation Ajax) to overthrow another government with the help of MI-6 and some Iranian monarchists. The operation succeeded and they re-instated Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah (he abdicated during WWII).

Finally, what we now call British Petroleum started as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. So BP is a company that helped overthrow a country’s democratic elected leader in an effort to keep oil flowing (and money) for the British government. Just laying the blame on the US here means ignoring the instigators of the whole thing.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
nonanone says:

Re: Re: Re:2 ????

…yes, a quick Google search can be enlightening on historical topics. There is even more U.S. and Iran history to learn.
And a massive history of U.S. intervention into the internal affairs of other sovereign nations.

Point is that U.S. government has not the slightest historical or moral basis to act against internet viewpoints from foreign people.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ????

"Just laying the blame on the US here means ignoring the instigators of the whole thing."

Well, it has to be said outright that the US was the one putting up the money and assets for Reza Pahlavi to mount his coup.
When the writing was on the wall that there would be a revolution against that tyrant it was the US who helped Khomeini back into Iran from exile (admittedly by Khomeini hoodwinking the Carter administration).
When Khomeini turned out to be a great adversary against the US the US backed a certain Saddam Hussein into power in Iraq against him locking down Iran, and when Saddam finally slipped his leash the US invaded…and ended up handing Iraq over to Iran.

The US big entry into ME foreign politics came at the point where the UK was withdrawing, having learned the hard way that imperialism and kingmaking was an expensive business to be in.

But they proved worthy successors of the tactic to persistently raise a new monster to deal with the old monster gone feral.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Um not what happened

That’s what happens, and it’s in the Notice. The government, like most everyone else, plays fast and loose with language. If anything resides on US-located servers, that would be probably seized also, if they felt like it. But domain name and DNS hijacking is what they always mean when they "seize a website". Otherwise they go into more detail about office/server farm raiding.

Anonymous Coward says:

from a western european point of view, I disagree with the sentence "Of course, non-US citizens outside the US are not protected by the 1st Amendment". irrespective of the fact that probably the actions of the DOJ are in violation of some UN charter about freedom of speech, which was ratified by the US, the constitution should apply to any action of the US Government, independently if the target is a national or not. Or am I missing something? for example, https://thenewamerican.com/fourth-amendment-and-foreigners-does-it-apply/

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

"in his dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Verdugo-Urquidez 494 U.S. 259 (1990), Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote:

What the majority ignores, however, is the most obvious connection between Verdugo-Urquidez and the United States: he was investigated and is being prosecuted for violations of United States law and may well spend the rest of his life in a United States prison. The “sufficient connection” is supplied not by Verdugo-Urquidez, but by the Government. Respondent is entitled to the protections of the Fourth Amendment because our Government, by investigating him and attempting to hold him accountable under United States criminal laws, has treated him as a member of our community for purposes of enforcing our laws. He has become, quite literally, one of the governed.

Fundamental fairness and the ideals underlying our Bill of Rights compel the conclusion that when we impose “societal obligations,” such as the obligation to comply with our criminal laws, on foreign nationals, we in turn are obliged to respect certain correlative rights, among them the Fourth Amendment.

By concluding that respondent is not one of “the people” protected by the Fourth Amendment, the majority disregards basic notions of mutuality. If we expect aliens to obey our laws, aliens should be able to expect that we will obey our Constitution when we investigate, prosecute, and punish them. We have recognized this fundamental principle of mutuality since the time of the Framers."

this is from a dissenting opinion of the SC – does this mean that the argument was finally considered invalid or does it constitute a precedent of some sort? (I am not skilled in US law, this is why I am asking)

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christenson says:

Re: To whom does the constitution apply???

Heya anonymous and Mike Masnick:

I don’t think there’s the first word in the bill of rights about citizens and non-citizens or even felons. It keeps saying "the people", or no person. Unpersoning foreign governments is a bad idea.

At best the US government should follow twitter’s lead: Leave the bad speech up but label it …. because as a citizen, I’d sure like to know what nonsense Iran or Russia is trying to push on everyone.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: To whom does the constitution apply???

Sure, the US govt has all the rights to label, or even to redirect after a warning like "are you really sure that you want to waste your time reading nonsense?". But this is quite different from seizing a domain. My comment is not intended to be apologetic versus disinformation.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is always the hosts file. If someone knows the IP address of the seized website, they can put that in their hosts file, and the site will work as it did before.

Using the hosts file to circumvent seizure/blocking of a sites does not break any current laws in the United States.

This was the main issue with SOPA/PIPA, someone could put the IP address of the site in their hosts file, and site will still work

Even with "DNS poisoing" in China, someone can still access a blocked site, if they know the IP address.

I know this becuase when one VPN service had a server in China, which was also subject to the Great Firewall, I was able to log on to the VPN, and then type in the IP address for Twitter, instead of twitter.com, and Twitter worked, even from a Chinese network.

So anyone in China could either either type in the IP address (if they know it), or put the address in their hosts file.

TKnarr (profile) says:

The question the US government needs to ask themselves is this: can the government of Iran seize the domains of US news outlets to prevent them from spreading what the Iranian government considers disinformation? I mean, the Iranian authorities can get the same kind of court order the US government got and all, so why would their seizure be any less legitimate?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The question the US government needs to ask themselves is this: can the government of Iran seize the domains of US news outlets to prevent them from spreading what the Iranian government considers disinformation?

I would venture to guess that if a US news outlet has a site hosted on a .ir domain, then yes, Iran can seize that domain.

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

Re: Re: Re: Re:

.com and .net are controlled by American corporations which means that they have to abide by American law and American court orders. Since there are heavy sanctions on Iran, American companies are forbidden from doing business with Iranian companies unless they get specific exemptions. The .com and .net registrars were technically in violation of the sanctions by providing domain services to these companies so, the American government took advantage and got orders to make them stop.

All-in-all, it’s still a bad look for the country known for its free speech laws to take down speech but, no country with American sanctions against it should use any TLD with a registrar based in the United States.

Anonymous Coward says:

PressTV is already back up with an .ir domain

Some much for DoJ trying to seize PressTV.

PressTV’s servers are in Denmark. Servers in Denmark are not subject to any laws in the United States. The server farm in Denmark they are on only has to follow Danish and EU laws. The United States no no jurisdiction over any servers in Denmark.

Anonymous Coward says:

One of those statutes required apparently involves possible criminal sactions?

Coult that mean the domain resgistrars?

I have heard that Windows 11, at least the pro version, will have what has been in android phones for a long time.

You will be able to encypt the data on your hard disk, where if it is pulled out and put in another computer, the content on it will be inacessible.

If the domain registrars had Windoiws 11 pro right now, they could encrypt the hard disks on all their office computers, where if the Feds were to pull those out and put them in another machine for forensic examination, all they would get is a bunch of encrypted nonsense and not be able to recover any evidence.

All Android versions from 5.0 and up already have this for SD cards. If you take the SD card of a phone and put in another device, the content cannot be decrypted. I do that when going on road trips, just in case I am in Michigan or somewhere they can seize my electronic in any "asset forfeiture". If they take the SD card out and put in another device, the content will on it will unreadable, so they will not be able to get anything I have stored on the SD card. Putting the SD card in another phone, or any PC to try and read what is on there will only get them a bunch of encrypted jibberish that they cannot decrypt no matter what they do.

It looks like Windows 11 pro is taking a page from Android’s playbook, by making it where if the hard disk is pulled out and inserted into another computer, the content becomes inaccessible. This would render any attempt to do a forensic analysis useless.

And this does not break any laws anywhere in Canada, Mexico, or the United States. So you cannot be prosecuted for locking out investigators in that manner.

You can’t prosecute what you cannot read.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And another thing that will stymie investigators is a now app for Android phones that will detect virtually any use of forensic tools on your phone and will immediately shut down and wipe the phone, stopping forensic tools cold.

With that, if your phone is seized, any attempt by investigators to use forensic tools to examine your phone will result in the phone immediately wiping and resetting, stopping investigator

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Take Your Business Offshore

prohibited from obtaining services, including website and domain services, in the United States without an OFAC license

Naturally, this prohibition does not apply to competing website and domain service providers located outside of the U.S. The prudent tech services purchaser may want to be sure that his vendor is located elsewhere in order to reduce his exposure to the risk of having U.S. government interference with his contracts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Take Your Business Offshore

Quite true

That is why one pirate streaming site, despite the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, can still operate, and which is recently expanded its channel lineup.

Because they operate from servers in Holland, they are not subject to any United States laws.

the same applies for PressTV, since their servers are in Denmark. A computer in Denmark is not subject to US laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Correct yourself Masnick

Mike Masnick in one of his past articles, referred to Russia as "Authoritarian". As if the country doesn’t have laws, and freedoms within its country much like the US does. Now, he refers to Iran as having "hostile interests to the US". As if Iran thinks Americans themselves should be killed on site, which isn’t true. Americans come and go to Iran, vacation, site see, shop, etc. So obviously they have no hostile interests to United States citizens or the country itself. They certainly aren’t waging war on America over their decades-long sanctions, instead, they just ask them to come to an end.

If you want to write articles about countries you have never been to Mike, it’s best to stick to facts, rather than biased assumptions. Both countries are peaceful and have more interests in having stable relations with America than not. It’s American politicians that want all the regional power and resources, not American citizens. So to correct your statement, it is authoritarian American politicians who act in self-interest, not for the American people who Iran is hostile against, if at all.

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