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Digital Tyrants Enable Political Tyrants

The internet was once hailed as the ultimate channel for free expression and democratizing the world, but the worldwide web’s promise of unlimited free expression is being quickly eroded by the alliance between political tyrants anxious to retain their power and digital tyrants anxious to retain their power – and make money.

Iran protestsAn immediate case in point is what’s going on in Russia and Iran.

The English language news site The Moscow Times reports that YouTube (owned by Google) blocked Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call for a nationwide boycott of the upcoming presidential elections over what is said were "illegal hashtags."

The opposition leader announced a boycott of the March 2018 elections this week after officials barred him from running as a presidential candidate due to a prior criminal conviction.

YouTube allegedly took down the video because it contained “illegal” hashtags, Navalny explained in a post on his website, citing a formal explanation from YouTube.

The video contained hashtags including #strike #Navalny2018 and #28January. The 41-year-old anti-corruption activist suggested that the Kremlin had infiltrated YouTube with "moles," citing the rise of pro-government videos in top-trending lists and frequent bans on anti-Kremlin content.

While some of Navalny’s content was restored by YouTube after the would be presidential candidate complained, “It’s becoming obvious that there is ill intent and that this is deliberate discrimination on political grounds,” Navalny said.

And then there is Iran.

When protests erupted in Iran in 2009, then-President Barack Obama reacted cautiously, concerned that a forceful intervention could make America -- reviled as the "Great Satan" by Iranian revolutionaries -- a rallying cause for the clerical regime.

Eight years on, with demonstrations and violence breaking out again in Iranian cities, the US position is reversed, with President Donald Trump and his team almost gleefully leaping at the chance to line up alongside Iranian protesters.

In one of his first tweets of the new year, Trump was openly rooting for regime change.

"Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!"

However, it is unclear if the Iranian protesters received President Trump’s message of support.

CNN reports that Iran has restricted access to Instagram and Telegram, a secure messaging app. In a statement, Iran’s interior minister said that social networks are “causing violence and fear.”

According to reports posted by Jon Fingas on, Iran has blocked mobile access to at least Telegram and Instagram as it tries to thwart protests that started over economic concerns (particularly inflation), but have now extended into broader resistance to the oppressive government and clerical rule.

There are also numerous reports of Iran blocking mobile internet access in several cities, although the full extent isn't clear. The Iran Student News Agency noted that desktop access to Telegram was working, so this appears to be more of an attempt to disrupt on-the-ground protest coordination and citizen journalism than a blanket ban.

Officials claim the censorship is meant to "maintain peace," but the argument doesn't hold water. Iran clearly doesn't want to reveal the extent of the demonstrations, reports Fingas.

At least 12 people are believed to have been killed so far and amateur videos posted on social media Monday purport to show anti-government protests for a fifth straight day. The videos showed crowds marching down the streets of different cities, including Tehran, and chanting anti-government slogans. In one video, angry protestors could be heard shouting "death to Khamenei," referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

Across the world in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government on Saturday ordered telecommunications providers to cut internet and SMS services across the country ahead of planned anti-government demonstrations.

Grassroots Catholic activists called for marches in major cities on Sunday to demand that President Joseph Kabila commit to not changing the constitution to stand for a third term and release political prisoners.

With internet and SMS service suspended reports leaking out from the desperately poor African country claim that at least 8 people have been killed and dozens of Catholic faithful, including 12 alter boys, have been arrested.

In China there is another kind of softer censorship going on.

After a year that saw democracy advocates in Hong Kong jailed and ousted from public office, thousands marched through the streets of Hong Kong on New Year’s Day to warn China not to meddle further in the city’s affairs and undermine its autonomy.

But go to Google News and enter “Hong Kong Protests” and we got but three returns, one of which was off topic.

This is the same kind of soft censorship that puts Salon at the top of practically every news search for articles on Donald Trump and buries those from conservative sources – like Breitbart – that have a much greater reach than Salon.

And let’s be clear – none of this can happen without the active or tacit involvement of the Silicon Valley oligarchs who control the software and hardware that is the internet.

Delegates to a United Nations summit in October assailed Google, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Yahoo and other tech giants for cooperating too closely with China and other oppressive regimes.

At that conference, in remarks weirdly predictive of what’s going on right now in the oppressive Islamic Republic, a representative of the Iranian government warned against sacrificing security by allowing too much free speech online.

A global consensus on free speech means first solving "the problems of different understanding of meaning and different application of that meaning, according to the different law of different countries," the representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran said according to reporting by Declan McCullagh writing for CNET.

Fortunately, not all the tech industry has sold its soul to the tyrants.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter after Iranian authorities blocked access to the app. "Iranian authorities are blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down ... peacefully protesting channels," he wrote.

But other tech giants, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Instagram, declined to protest the Iranian government’s cyber blockade.

We urge our CHQ readers and friends to use their social media channels to demand open access to the internet for everyone by posting this article to Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and other social media outlets.

George Rasley is editor of Richard Viguerie's A veteran of over 300 political campaigns, he served on the staff of Vice President Dan Quayle, as Director of Policy and Communication for Congressman Adam Putnam (FL-12) then Vice Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, and as spokesman for Rep. Mac Thornberry now-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

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