As Washington Babylon reported last month, the American web domain address for PressTV, the Iranian state broadcaster, was suddenly and quite literally cancelled by the US government. Since that time, the .TV and .CO.UK domains have likewise been shuttered and it is impossible to ignore the chilling censorship this exemplifies.
The move is predicated upon the sanctions regime Washington has imposed upon Tehran, as well as domestic civil asset forfeiture laws. Iran is designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” as are several of its government agencies, including its elite Quds Force military unit. The Justice Department said in a press release:
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated IRTVU [Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union] 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. 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 with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.
How did we get here?
When the Internet was first rolled out on a mass scale in the middle of the 1990’s, the American public was given access to a free, open, and completely unregulated method of communication and commerce overnight, a kind of digital Wild West creating opportunities for anyone to do anything.
Meanwhile in the halls of Washington, both the Democrats and Republicans recognized rather quickly they had unwittingly created a Frankenstein monster. This history of the Internet demonstrates in vivid detail the absolute bankruptcy of arguments in favor of a “free market” precisely because the web was born as a completely unregulated and ungoverned platform-cum-marketplace on Day One. In the past 25 years, Washington has been steadily eroding that lack of oversight, instituting regulations that instead are designed to intentionally favor the most powerful business interests on earth, such as Amazon. Neither political party nor their aspiring caucuses, be it Progressives on the left or Libertarians on the right, are exempt here and it is important to remember this.
Furthermore, all of these regulatory measures were unnecessary. Child pornography, sexual abuse, illicit drug/weapons trafficking, and other issues that these laws were purportedly meant to address were already extremely illegal. In fact, we built the largest prison population on earth, housed inside our mass Black incarceration GULAG archipelago, primarily using laws predating the existence of the Internet. However, none of those overly-carceral policies granted federal, state, and municipal police agencies explicit allowance to censor Constitutionally-protected Free Speech and Press.
In order to accomplish these things, Washington utilized two general argumentative strategies. The first was “market modernization” to “liberalize the flow of trade and commerce,” which was rhetorical crack in the neoliberal Nineties and Aughts. The second was invocation of sensational phrases like “illicit narcotic/weapon sales,” “sex crimes and exploitation/trafficking,” “terrorism,” and other nebulous, scare-mongering buzzwords.
Under these two rubrics, Americans have seen the Bill of Rights, the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, and even the Magna Carta’s precept that the government is equally as liable for criminal behavior as the governed, ripped to shreds, creating a dictatorship of the most powerful and wealthy interests possible fused with the largest surveillance apparatus in human history.
This censorship takes two forms. There’s the overt public sector fine and the somewhat more subtle private sector copyright licensing fee and infringement penalty. Both amount to the same thing on a budget sheet’s bottom line and so there’s a dime’s worth of difference between the two while systematically eroding the public domain commons upon which journalism and media depend as a bedrock for the free and open exchange of information.
Here are the numerous legal precedents, created with bipartisan support over the past 25 years, that have led us to such a moment.
The list includes:
1996: Clinton Telecom Act
Justification: MODERNIZED MARKETS WITHOUT REGULATIONS WILL SAVE US ALL!
This law was a behemoth and trying to hash through all of its repercussions is the stuff of an entire law school seminar. The major consequences, however, are impossible to ignore. It removed New Deal regulatory firewalls preventing monopolistic tendencies in media publishing markets, which in the long run has led to 90% of the media firms in America being owned by these six behemoths, AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, News Corp, and Viacom. It has led telecommunication firms that offer phone, cellular, cable, and internet services to also consolidate, which in turn means that America is lagging behind Europe and parts of Asia when it comes to things like 5G or public utility wi-fi. A sub-component, the Communications Decency Act, saw the first attempt to regulate the transmission of obscene/pornographic material to minors, which thankfully was struck down by the Supreme Court. If you comprehend the absurdity of trying to “stop” teenagers from downloading porn, you can understand how repressive such law enforcement would quickly become, especially given the undeniable subjectivity in designating something “lewd.” However, it did establish onerous precedents that are used to harass decent people over their harmless sexual habits.
1998: Sonny Bono Act
Justification: SAVE MICKEY MOUSE!
In the late 1990s, the Disney Corporation was facing a minor crisis. The original cartoon shorts produced by Walt Disney, including Steamboat Willy, the cinematic premiere of Mickey Mouse, were about to exit copyright protection. The Disney media enterprise was simultaneously being reexamined and scrutinized by progressive scholars in books like Henry Giroux’s The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. The Bono Act extended copyrights for longer periods of time while also granting corporations far more rights at the detriment of the public.
Besides the immediate benefits for Disney, this has had a rippling effect across the entire multimedia market that cannot be underestimated. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby only entered the public domain this year. For an extra number of decades, long after Fitzgerald’s heirs shuffled off this mortal coil, schools that decided to teach the novel were required to shell out money to the publisher Scribner’s, which equals a pretty penny when a municipal government is buying hundreds of copies. Furthermore, Michael Harris Smith only was able to publish Nick, his sequel to the original novel, on Januray 5, 2021 because of the onerous licensing fees that he would have been required to shell out previously.
Ongoing: Media Piracy
Justification: SAVE THE POOR STARVING MILLIONAIRE ROCK STARS!
In the late Nineties, the music and film industries were beset by a panic when they realized teenagers were able to share music and video files online. Suddenly, platforms like Napster, LimeWire, and Bit Torrent were subject to intensified scrutiny because of reduced profit margins. Police agencies teamed up with ISPs and corporate lobbies like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to drop heavy fines on kids who dared download the latest Metallica album. There’s no denying that having your work stolen hurts and not gaining profits from exploitation of your labor is theft. But neither of these necessarily justifies harassing kids and their clueless parents for two reasons. First, these are the richest media conglomerates in human history. They could have very easily, and in fact eventually did, adjust their marketing and sales paradigms in order to make their work more affordable for these consumers. Second, data and research shows that harassing and suing your fans is not good PR. In fact, that gesture demonstrates the amount of cynicism and crass commercialism these artists are relying upon.
Does anyone feel sympathetic for people operating like that?
To be concluded tomorrow…