July 2, 2014

Has Iran’s Internet Been “Seized” by US Courts?


Iran Internet

Washington, DC – Last week, a number of media outlets reported that a U.S. court had ordered that Iran’s Internet be “seized” and handed over to Israeli and American victims of terrorism in order to be auctioned off to pay for damages against the Iranian government. The prospect that all Iranian domains and IP addresses would be deemed Iranian government property and handed over to settle claims against the government would deal a serious blow to advocates of an open Internet in Iran who already have long faced significant opposition from Iran’s government. The implications for ordinary Iranians’ access to the Internet could be severe.

In reality, most press reports got the story wrong. Lawyers indeed issued a subpoena for ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to turn over all documents that list and reference contracts and agreements with Iran’s government and all Top Level Domains (TLDs) and IP addresses issued to Iran. This is part of the normal discovery process in civil lawsuits. While these lawyers may seek to claim that any contract payments between Iran and ICANN be diverted to plaintiffs or that Iran’s TLDs and IP addresses are assets of the Iranian government and subject to seizure, no court decision has yet been made on the matter.

The lawyers’ claim is part of a civil lawsuit brought against Iran’s Government and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security [MOIS] following a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. Victims – which included a US citizen living in Israel who was on the bus and injured in the attack – sued Iran’s Government and the MOIS for providing material support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the group held responsible for the attack. In 2006, a US federal court agreed with plaintiffs and found Iran co-responsible for the bombing. Later, the court awarded the victims $300 million in damages, recoverable against Iranian Government assets.

However, finding US-based assets of Iran’s Government has proven difficult. This difficulty has produced novel legal claims, including one last year in which lawyers claimed that the Persepolis tablets belonged to Iran’s Government and thus was subject to seizure and sale. A US federal court correctly rejected the claim.

But this is a troubling development. While the lawyers represent victims of a heinous act of terrorism, it would be a further injustice were the lawyers to succeed on their claim that Iran’s Internet belongs to Iran’s Government. While Iranians have proven adept at maneuvering around government censors, cutting Iranians off from the Internet would threaten not just hopes for an open Internet in Iran but also the widely shared interest in ensuring ordinary people in Iran can connect to the global community.

NIAC will follow developments in this case – Haim, et. al. v. Islamic Republic of Iran – closely in the months ahead.

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