US media’s claims of ‘internet shutdowns’ abroad ignore crucial context

A hand holding a smart phone, using the internet

As part of the escalating campaign of aggression against Iran, US media has been invoking a strategic narrative: ‘Iran is shutting down internet connections in pursuit of government control and silencing dissent’.

One example appeared in Wired in November 2019. Entitled How the Iranian Government Shut Off the Internet, the article suggested that the government deliberately restricted access to the web in the interest of silencing anti-government protesters. Vox sounded the same alarm, as did CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among others.

These stories were hardly the first of their kind. US media has a history of reporting on restricted digital access in order to villainize countries whose governments Washington seeks to subvert. In May 2019, for example, during the ongoing US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela seeking to oust the democratically-elected Nicolás Maduro, NBC News published a story headlined How Venezuela’s vice grip on the internet leaves citizens in the dark during crises. Numerous outlets have also fearmongered about a ‘balkanized‘ web in Russia, Iran and China, fretting that these countries may ‘cut themselves off from the internet‘. Shutdowns have indeed occurred, as outlets like Iran’s PressTV have confirmed. But US media often fails to tell the whole story.

Lack of context

While internet access, or lack thereof, is theoretically a valid concern, it’s worth noting that these stories exclude sources that represent or support the governments of the countries they discuss. Rather, they consistently rely on Freedom House, a US State Department-funded NGO; Human Rights Watch, which has extensive ties to the US intelligence apparatus; and the US nonprofit NetBlocks.

These reports also omit essential political context. According to their national media sources, Iran, Russia, and China have all developed programs to build independent or partially independent internet infrastructure and reduce reliance on, and potential interference from, foreign powers — namely the United States. Additionally, Venezuela and China have inked a number of major economic-development agreements.

Such plans are at odds with Washington’s ambition of global digital hegemony. Since at least the 1990s, Washington has envisaged a commercialized, largely unregulated internet with homegrown tech companies at the helm. Much of this has been achieved: US companies such as Google own a significant portion of the infrastructure that allows the internet to run. The notion that major countries would buck a US-controlled global internet thus threatens to loosen the US’s economic grip.

What’s more, US coverage of internet shutdowns fails to account for the role Washington may play in said shutdowns. For instance, Venezuelan officials have expressed concerns that the US was behind the nationwide blackout last March, and the US has a history of attempted digital sabotage against Iran.

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Double standards

Narratives about global “internet blackouts” also fail to acknowledge the US’s efforts to silence critical voices through its own digital channels.

Twitter, Facebook, and a number of major tech companies have routinely sought to muzzle and delegitimize news sources and political figures in non-US-allied countries. More recently, YouTube disabled the account of the Iranian-funded Press TV UK without explanation, Twitter temporarily suspended Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s account for “unusual activity”, and Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram announced plans to purge content they deem supportive of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general whom the US assassinated on 3 January.

Moreover, in May 2019, the US illegally cut power to the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC in an effort to punish activists and journalists covering efforts to protect it from pro-coup protesters.

Considering this history of institutional censorship and violence, the US is an example of the very form of government it so loftily condemns. It’s in no position, then, to determine how the internet should function — no matter how much its government and corporate media insist otherwise.

Featured image via Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

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