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Instagram says it’s removing posts supporting slain Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani to comply with U.S. sanctions laws. The Facebook-owned social media platform is one of the few Western social media companies still operating in Iran -- and journalists and free speech advocates are warning it could be going too far in censoring some posts. 

Facebook said it was removing any posts praising Soleimani to comply with U.S. sanctions after Coda Story's Isobel Cockerell first reported that The International Federation of Journalists said on its website Instagram suspended the accounts of at least 15 Iranian journalists.The group says though some of the accounts have since been restored, some posts were permanently deleted. 

“At a time when Iranian citizens need access to information it is unacceptable that Instagram should choose to censor Iranian media and individual journalists and users,” IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said in a statement. 

Cockerell also reported that Instagram was shutting down accounts of Iranian journalists, human rights advocates and activists that were sharing posts related to the commander who was killed earlier this month. In one widely shared instance, the company reportedly removed a post from an Iranian journalist who was a critic of the country's government but wrote Soleimani's killing was "contrary to the principles of international law.” From the Committee to Protect Journalists's Avi Asher-Schapiro:

Instagram said that it restored content to the journalist Emadeddin Baghi’s account after it identified an error in removing several posts that do not violate its policies. 

The company does remove posts commending or supporting groups labeled foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. That includes Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which Soleimani helped to lead and was added to that list a year ago. Facebook has interpreted the law to mean it has to remove all content that encourages the actions of sanctioned parties, as well as individuals who seek to help further their actions. 

But that has raised concerns from free speech advocates, who say the social media network does not have a legal obligation to take down posts that praise or commend a terrorist group. And it highlights the dilemma confronting Facebook as it aims to position itself as a global force for free expression.

"We review content against our policies and our obligations to US sanctions laws, and specifically those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership as a terrorist organization,” said Facebook spokeswoman Sarah Pollack. 

Pollack also said that people can appeal disabled accounts in the company's Help Center. 

"We try to offer an appeal option when we remove content so if people feel we have mistakenly removed something, they can let us know," Pollack said. 

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said on Twitter that Instagram was "legally wrong" in its position and she was not aware of any aspect of the sanctions law that would require the action taken simply supporting Soleimani.

She said the controversy is part of a broader issue with American tech companies struggling to comply with U.S. sanctions:

Eliza Campbell, associate director at the Cyber Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C, told Coda Story that the existing laws had failed to keep up with online speech, calling it a field of law "that hasn't been written quite yet." 

 “The terrorist designation system is an important tool, but it’s also a blunt instrument,” she said. “I think we’re walking down a dangerous path when we afford these platforms – which are private entities, have no oversight, and are not elected bodies – to essentially dictate policy, which is what’s happening right now.”

Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told me that Facebook and Instagram are taking "a very aggressive position and it may not be sustainable." He said it could result in Facebook removing any speech of any Iranian mourning Soleimani's death and could represent a "harsh new precedent."

"It puts Facebook out ahead of Google and Twitter," he said. There have been no reports of Google removing such posts, and the company declined to comment. Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Instagram faces unique challenges as one the only American tech services operating in Iran, especially the country has already previously taken steps toward banning its services. Experts say that the service is an important link to the broader Internet in a country where services including Facebook and Twitter are blocked, unless accessed using virtual private networks. Brooking wrote:

The Iranian government is pushing back against the social network. It has called for nationwide legal action protesting the removals, according to CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan and Artemis Moshtaghian. Iran's government spokesperson, Ali Rabiei, said on Twitter that Instagram's actions are "undemocratic," and state media reported there's government website portal for the app's users to submit examples of posts that the company removed.  

Ben Taub, a staff writer at The New Yorker, raised concerns about the company's decision to align its removals so explicitly with U.S. political interests:


BITS: Washington state lawmakers will consider a host of new tech regulations this week, picking up debate over a contentious privacy bill first introduced last year. Privacy advocates are already gearing up to defeat this year's version, arguing it leans in favor of the state’s tech industry.

“The bill empowers corporations more than it does consumers to protect their data and privacy,” says Jevan Hutson, a tech policy advocate and student at the University of Washington School of Law.

The privacy bill does not include a private right of action that would allow consumers to sue companies directly for violating their privacy. That puts it a step behind some of the measures being discussed by Congress and the California Consumer Privacy Act, which went into effect this year, Hutson says.

Advocates are also rallying against a bill that would preempt local regulation of facial recognition technology. Regulation of facial recognition software was discussed as a part of last year's privacy act, but an increased spotlight on the software could influence discourse in Olympia. Cities across the country adopted bans on the technology, and Congress hosted hearings weighing the issue.

A third bill would regulate how companies collect and store data through voice-recognition devices such as Alexa. That could put pressure on Amazon, which was relatively silent about last year's privacy act, to ramp up its lobbying in Washington state. Last year Microsoft was the most vocal tech company lobbyist in the state, as it pushed for last year's privacy bill. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). 

Other bills up for debate this week would regulate the use of commercial and political bots and regulate the use of artificial intelligence in hiring.

NIBBLES: Google aggressively pursued partnerships with some of the country's largest health-care systems, gaining the ability to view or analyze the data of tens of millions of patients in at least three-quarters of U.S. states, Rob Copeland, Dana Mattioli and Melanie Evans at the Wall Street Journal report. The tech giant's access to a massive trove of sensitive health data including names, birth dates and medications has sparked serious privacy concerns among lawmakers and patients.

Google says it is using the data to improve health outcomes and create a more modernized system for hospitals to organize patient data. The company is developing a search tool for patient data, which would be analyzed by Google engineers and stored on the company's servers, the Journal reports. The company says the efforts are unconnected to its advertising business.

The program has come under greater scrutiny since a November Wall Street Journal report revealed a partnership with one health-care system that will give Google detailed information on 50 million patient records. The report sparked interest from federal investigators at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, which has in recent weeks begun interviewing people close to the project, the Journal reports. It also has “opened fissures in its top ranks over how to proceed, according to people with knowledge of the discussions,” the Journal reports.

BYTES: A review of hundreds Florida police cases using facial recognition highlights how infrequently the technology results in a breakthrough, Jennifer Valentine-Devries at the New York Times reports. Law enforcement's use of the software largely lacks oversight and is sometimes in used to make arrests without other supporting evidence, the investigation found. 

Florida law enforcement attributes more than 400 successes to the software since 2014, but that's just a small percentage of the nearly 5,000 searches run per month. Despite guidelines that facial recognition should not be relied on as sole evidence for an arrest, the Times founded instances in Florida where it appears law enforcement did just that. 

In some cases, use of the technology was not mentioned when police filed for warrants or affidavits. Defense attorneys say that information should be provided as part of the discovery process, and omitting it denies their clients their rights.

Privacy advocates cautioned against using the technology, which research has shown to be highly variable depending on factors including image quality and the race of the subject.

“It’s really being sold as this tool accurate enough to do all sorts of crazy stuff,” said Clare Garvie, a senior associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. “It’s not there yet.” 


— Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) announced a new nonprofit group today aimed at highlighting the economic and national security importance of 5G next generation telecommunications. The group will push the Federal Communications Commission to launch a C-band auction this year that will further deployment in the United States. It will also work with members of Congress “to win the 5G race against China,” according to a news release.

— More news from the public sector:


— News from the private sector:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:


— Talent news at the intersection of the tech industry and Washington:

  • Alphabet's chief legal officer David Drummond will step down at the end of the month, my colleague Greg Bensinger reports. Drummond, who worked at the company nearly 18 years, was under investigation by the company's board over claims of inappropriate relationships.


— Coming up:

  • The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing called "Facial Recognition Technology (Part III): Ensuring Commercial Transparency & Accuracy" on Wednesday.
  • The House Antitrust Subcommittee will host a field hearing on the role of competitors in the digital economy at 10 a.m. on Friday at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder.
  • Silicon Flatirons will host its "Technology Optimism and Pessimism" conference Feb. 9 and 10 at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, Colorado. Speakers include FCC Michael O'Rielly and FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra.
  • Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24 to 27 in Barcelona


Fake and altered images and video are widely spread online to amplify political messages and undermine opponents.

Fake and altered images and video are widely spread online to amplify political messages and undermine opponents. (The Washington Post)