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.
Foreign governments have no right to spread disinformation inside the United States, obviously. But US citizens and residents have a constitutionally protected right to receive information from abroad. Not clear that this right has been given appropriate weight here. https://t.co/GbAK5PxBdG
— Jameel Jaffer (@JameelJaffer) June 22, 2021
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.