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.
There's a lot to go through, but my immediate read on the DOJ seizure of a bunch of sites that are allegedly part of IRGC disinformation campaigns is that they kinda suck. Not compelling news (I'm looking at samples on @internetarchive) & their US social media presence was low. pic.twitter.com/t2K6jknqqq
— Kevin Collier (@kevincollier) October 7, 2020
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?