US ISP modifies then shuts down Iranian blog, raising privacy and censorship concerns

Filed as News on August 16, 2007 11:44 am

Global Voices writes a lengthy news piece concerning the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder) whose blog has suffered censorship at the hands of the US based hosting company “Hosting Matters”.

The main gist of this particular story, which I hadn’t been following until now, seems to be:

  • Lawyers representing Mehdi Khalaji, from The Washington Institute, complain to the ISP (not to a court) of alleged defamatory content posted on Hoder’s blog.
  • ISP sends a request to Hoder that the post in question be removed, and no further mention is made of Khalaji:

    we have found that the material and commentary fall into a grey area regarding the allegations made by the complainant. The most prudent course of action, whether the allegations of defamation are valid or not in this instance, is to remove the material from the site.

    While we do not agree with the assessment as it relates to the latest post you have made, we do not have the time, interest, or resources to invest in continually dealing with his complaints and to review your site. Please remove that post and refrain from mentioning this person in any form on the site you host within this network.

  • Khalaji’s lawyers request the IP addresses of anyone visiting the blog. Whether the ISP complied isn’t clear.
  • Last week, Derakhshan claims that his hosting company “removed, from my web serve and even my blogging software’s database, any post where Mehdi Khalaji was named in English.”
  • The ISP finally shuts down Hoder’s site.

Regardless of the specifics of this case, the whole episode raises alarm bells.

How can an ISP roll over to lawyers so easily. Their own phraseology: “while we do not agree … we do not have the time, interest, or resources to invest in continually dealing with his complaints” is concerning. It implies that, if a complainant is persistent enough, a site will be censored or shut down even if there’s no evidence or formal legal requirement to do so.

Of course, most ISPs state that they will comply with the law, but there is something rather disturbing about this case.

Iranian blogger Jahanshah Javid wrote that:

Hossein has not been found guilty in a court of law. He has fallen victim to an aggressive lawyer and an internet hosting company that’s trying to cover its ass. If Hossein had a lawyer and there was a trial, I am sure the court would not have ordered his site be shut down. And it would not have forced him to remove ALL references to Mehdi Khalaji in his blog either.

Global Voices ask the question that I’m now wondering: “Are our personal blogs safe with commercial hosting companies, especially when our writing may be deemed controversial? What if hosting companies edit our posts, deleting whatever they want?”

Amnesty International’s campaigns director, Tim Hancock, recently called on ISPs to protect online freedom of expression.

“Web users and service providers alike have a responsibility to keep alive the things that have made the internet great — its democracy, its freedom and the way it gives people access to knowledge and the opportunity to participate and be heard, in a way that was unthinkable 45 years ago.”

If overzealous lawyers start throwing around heavyweight accusations of defamation of character, and bullying weak ISPs into censoring or removing content or handing over details of visitors to a web site, it’s a potential worry to us all.

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