In a surprise action on Tuesday, the United States government seized more than 30 website domains connected to Iran's government, disrupting access to multiple state-backed media outlets. US officials said the action stemmed from terrorist disinformation distributed on the sites and their violation of sanctions. But press freedom advocates caution that the takedowns have much broader implications for free speech rights and foreign relations alike.
Impacted sites included English and Arabic outlets Press TV and Al-Alam, and others like the Yemeni Houthi channel Al-Masirah TV. They were all run by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union. The DOJ also took down three sites associated with the Iraqi paramilitary group Kata’ib Hizballah, which has Iranian support. The move extends a controversial precedent set by the Trump administration, made all the more concerning by the disjointed and seemingly uncoordinated nature of the operation.
“It's really unclear why the US government acted on these particular sites and why now, or what their standard is for intervention,” says Evelyn Douek, a research scholar at Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute and a lecturer at Harvard Law School. “One of the core principles of free speech rights is that government restrictions on speech should be transparent and justified, and that's not happening as much as it should.”
The operation comes as the Biden administration is attempting to negotiate with Tehran, including president-elect Ebrahim Raisi, about Iran's nuclear program and support for proxy militias across the Middle East. But the website domain seizures seemed poorly coordinated, with site access coming up and down for hours. Notices on the impacted sites' homepages said that the domain had been seized by the US Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security, the Office of Export Enforcement, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Other portions of some sites continued to function at first, though. The Department of Justice did not formally acknowledge or confirm the initiative for hours after web users started noticing the impacts.
“Components of the government of Iran … disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations,” the Department of Justice wrote late Tuesday in a statement. “Thirty-three of the websites seized today were operated by IRTVU." The DOJ went on to say that the 33 domains were purchased through a US registrar, but that IRTVU had not obtained a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control to do so—putting the sites in violation of sanctions.
The operation was not the first time US government agencies have targeted Iranian state-backed news sites. But domain seizures can only disrupt service for so long, and sites typically return with a modified URL. Press TV quickly said on Tuesday that it had transitioned from a “.com” to a “.ir” address, which would not be managed by a US-based domain registrar.
“It’s part of a wider trend since Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions on Iran were implemented of taking down some Iranian sites by the Department of Justice and Treasury, as well as platforms like Twitter and Instagram taking down some users," says Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
US-based social media companies have struggled to deal with Iranian disinformation campaigns on their platforms and have increasingly focused on takedowns to limit the impact on their users. The DOJ has previously worked with Google, Facebook, and Twitter to track Iranian sites spreading misinformation. In 2020, the Trump administration conducted domain seizures on the .com versions of Fars News Agency, the IRNA daily newspaper, and dozens of other domains that US officials said were being used to spread unlawful disinformation. The DOJ did not indicate whether it worked with social media companies in this week's round of takedowns.
Harvard's Douek studies what she describes as “free speech blind spots” in how countries react to foreign disinformation campaigns versus how they frame misinformation formulated by domestic actors and circulating in domestic discourse. She argues that US takedowns of Iranian state-backed news sites fit the profile of actions against foreign entities that may be in the national security interest, but aren't conducted with the same scrutiny that domestic infringement of speech would be.
“The contrast between how we talk about foreign disinformation and domestic disinformation in this space is really stark,” Douek says. “Foreign disinformation gets talked about with really militarized language, while domestic disinformation gets talked about in the language of speech rights. The reason this matters is that it means we don't demand the same level of transparency, justification, or oversight of enforcement measures when it comes to foreign speech.”
Tehran has said it believes such US takedowns are unlawful. Iran’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that the seizures were an example of a "systematic effort to distort freedom of speech on a global level and silence independent voices in media."
The Iranian regime is certainly known for distributing propaganda and misinformation, but free speech advocates emphasize that heavy-handed and inconsistent US takedown actions could set lasting, and problematic, geopolitical precedents. Iran is also far from the only country that distributes misinformation or propaganda about the US through state-backed media.
Takedowns like these could ultimately push target countries even more rapidly toward balkanized and tightly controlled versions of the internet. Iran for one has worked for years to build its National Information Network, or countrywide intranet, which would not only put Iran's disinformation sites outside of US reach, but would heavily restrict access to information for the country's citizens and chill speech. Iran's protracted 2019 internet shutdown showed the extreme lengths the nation's regime is willing to go to to restrict the flow of information. There's a fine line between attempting to address Tehran's disinformation campaigns and reinforcing its instinct to retain as much digital control as possible.