Trump’s Appalling Record on Internet Freedom at Home Makes Him a Weak Champion of Rights Overseas

6 min readJan 4, 2018


Donald Trump wants to make the internet great again … in Iran.

But it’s another story when it comes to defending online rights in the United States.

On Tuesday, Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein told the Iranian government to stop blocking social-media sites being used to help organize protests across the country. Goldstein also encouraged Iranians to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent state-network controls.

Goldstein’s comments followed up to a Trump tweet from earlier in the week calling out the Iranian leadership for “[closing] down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate.”

Indeed, Iran has gone to new extremes to restrict its people’s access to the free and open internet.

In 2016, Iran created a domestic internet, the National Information Network (NIN), which prioritizes access to state-sanctioned domestic sites by offering lower usage prices and faster speeds.

Net Neutrality supporters in NYC, 2017. (photo: Timothy Karr)

That’s bad enough, but the NIN also lets Iran block access to global websites outright by redirecting all traffic to domestic destinations. The Center for Human Rights in Iran has documented the after-effect, citing several Iranians who are now struggling to get the word out about the severe government crackdown against street protests, which has included dozens of deaths and more than 1,000 arrests.

Trump’s right to condemn this. If only he felt the same way about protecting First Amendment freedoms at home.

Since the earliest days of his presidential campaign, he’s advocated for similar government controls over the internet while supporting official and non-official crackdowns against anyone who protests his authoritarian vision for the United States.

Candidate Trump repeatedly threatened to shut down the internet out of the mistaken belief that this would keep Americans safe from outside threats. Trump’s since offered few specifics about how this might be achieved, but that hasn’t stopped him from surrounding himself with surrogates intent on restricting access to open networks and punishing reporters who question his agenda.

Media = the ‘Enemy’

Since Trump took office, there’s been a dramatic uptick in attacks on journalists. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the project of a large coalition of media-rights groups including Free Press, documents the dozens of arrests and assaults on journalists in the last 11 months.

Trump’s choices for press secretary, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have discredited as “fake news” any journalism that critiques the administration. Trump himself called the press the “enemy of the American people.” It’s no coincidence that he retweets doctored videos portraying him body-slamming someone depicted as CNN.

It’s gotten so bad that CNN staff fear for their safety as Trump supporters take to the internet to threaten them and their families.

“People really, really worry about the safety of all the prominent people who represent us on the air, and the people who are breaking news they don’t like,” a CNN source told the The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove last year. “I fear for all of them.”

Peaceful Protesters = Criminals

Federal prosecutors rounded up and leveled severe property-destruction and conspiracy charges against 234 Inauguration Day protesters. The felony charges carry maximum penalties of 10 years in jail and a $25,000 fine.

In December, a jury found not guilty six journalists who were arrested alongside protesters. And while the verdict is a victory for the six, the mass arrests and prosecution of the others signal this administration’s determination to criminalize political dissent. The next trial of U.S. protesters is scheduled for March.

Prosecutors are using the Pinkerton liability rule, which implicates everyone involved in a mass action with every crime committed during that so-called conspiracy.

“In practice, this means that all defendants on trial for the protests can be convicted for all crimes committed during the action by mere virtue of their proximity to the crimes committed,” writes The Intercept’s Eoin Higgins.

Online Privacy = Luxury

In March, Republicans in Congress passed a resolution of disapproval to overturn the FCC’s landmark broadband-privacy rules and expose internet users to spying by companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

The measure eliminated a 2016 Obama FCC ruling requiring an ISP to obtain opt-in consent from its customers before selling their private data.

In the absence of these protections, ISPs can skirt laws designed to protect private data about internet users’ health and finances. These companies can now buy and sell information on your online habits — and use this to access everything you do online without your permission.

And this data can be used to circumvent longstanding civil-rights protections in housing, employment and consumer credit.

Trump’s choice for Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Ajit Pai, led the opposition in Washington to these basic protections and he applauded members of Congress when they overturned the rules. In that Pai was alone. The move in Congress was met with widespread bipartisan anger, with critics accusing Pai and his Trump-administration allies with selling out their constituents’ privacy rights.

The administration’s assault on privacy goes further. In August, Trump’s Justice Department tried to force internet-hosting company Dreamhost to turn over data on every person who visited a website used to organize the Inauguration Day protests.

The administration also served warrants on Facebook demanding disclosure of all information from the accounts of two activists and a page affiliated with the large-scale Inauguration Day protests. The requested information includes all photos, videos, posts, private messages, video calls, billing information and other data in the weeks prior to and after Jan. 20, 2017.

These moves and others have had a chilling effect among those protesting Trump as well as racial-justice groups that authorities have long targeted for speaking out.

Net Neutrality = Censorship

When candidate Trump first learned about efforts to enact Net Neutrality protections under the law, he tweeted that the principle that protects the open internet from blocking and censorship was itself a form of censorship that would “target conservative media.”

Net Neutrality does just the opposite: It ensures that neither the company that sells you internet access nor the government can block speech of any kind.

“Net Neutrality has been called the First Amendment of the internet,” wrote more than 30 press freedom, civil liberties and open government groups last month.

Doing away with Net Neutrality protections, the groups noted, “would give giant media conglomerates unprecedented power to censor independent journalists and silence political dissidents. Such unfettered power over public discourse in the United States would have a chilling effect on the rights of everyone, but especially those who need access to a network free of gatekeepers to do their work covering those in power and holding them accountable.”

But that didn’t stop Ajit Pai. In the first speech he gave after Trump appointed him FCC chairman, he launched a proceeding to unwind the Obama-era Net Neutrality protections.

Tens of millions of Americans, including large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, took action by writing the FCC and calling Congress to keep in place the 2015 rules protecting their online rights.

Pai ignored the outcry, and on Dec. 14, he and his Republican colleagues at the FCC voted to destroy the open internet, erasing the essential rules allowing people to gather and share information without fear of interference from entrenched internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

The loss of Net Neutrality will have a disproportionately severe impact on people of color, who rely on an open internet to challenge systemic racism, seek out educational and economic opportunities, combat dehumanizing narratives and fight for justice.

The Trump FCC’s vote gave a green light to an Iranian regime intent on further suppressing online freedoms, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Violations of Net Neutrality in Iran are part of the Iranian government’s systematic efforts to censor the internet,” the organization reports.

On that Trump and Iranian authorities may have more in common than they care to admit.




All things media, online & off, but mostly on. Timothy Karr advocates for universal access to open networks at Free Press and Free Press Action Fund.