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Week of January 8, 2018

Social media fans have many needs, business included
Censors hate that

Protests and counter-protests that rose-up in Iran last week have now quieted. People died, scores injured, many arrested. Authorities acted swiftly and cut-off social media lest the protests become organized. The internet was inaccessible for about 30 minutes (January 2). Disrupting the medium became the message.

Social messaging apps Instagram and Telegram Messenger, which is encrypted, are used widely in Iran. Facebook and YouTube remain restricted since the 2009 Green Movement protests. Access to Instagram was restored with Telegram Messenger users still waiting, reported Radio Farda (January 9). According to several sources, Telegram has about 40 million users in Iran, half the country, and Instagram more than 7 million. Twitter remains accessible to some; government officials use it, including President Hassan Rouhani.

State news agency Tasnim, affiliated with the infamous Revolutionary Guards, took to its Twitter account to post photos of protesters, asking followers to supply identities, reported the BBC (January 7). Protesters reacted in-kind; posting “names and details of security personnel.” (See more about press/media freedom here)

Telecom Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi gave a shout-out to Telegram Messenger chief executive Pavel Durov - on Twitter - complaining about one of the channels “encouraging hateful conduct, use of Molotov cocktails… and social unrest.” Errant subscribers were suspended, replied Mr. Durov. Minister Jahromi, to State news agency IRNA (January 3), threatened to close Telegram Messenger “completely” for disrespecting the “Iranians’ demand.”

Mr. Durov is no stranger to threats of the authoritarian kind. He founded VKontakte (VK) in 2006 and saw it become the biggest Russian social network site. Running afoul of authorities he was forced to sell his stake in VK, after which he was fired and left the country, reportedly with US$300 million. He founded Telegram in 2014 and now resides in Dubai.

The recent restrictions on social media in Iran have negatively affected commerce, buying and selling online being popular and growing. "Around half a million online businesses, including several high-tech companies, have been suspended due to the filtering," said Iranian Association for Online Commerce official Solmaz Sadeghnia, quoted by Radio Farda. President Rouhani noted this. (See more about social media here)

Social media has replaced traditional media where press and broadcasting are under total State control. Authoritarians have noticed; some indelicately shutting internet and mobile access or, more judiciously, blocking or restricting individual portals and apps. In Iran - and elsewhere - tech-savvy folks know all about work-arounds and VPN.

The Iranian embassy in the UK asked media regulator OFCOM to sanction privately-owned Persian language TV channel Manoto, based in London, the BBC Persian service for “inciting people to armed revolt,” reported Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) (January 5). Iran ranked 165th in the most recent RSF Press Freedom Index, between Bahrain and Yemen.

Hate speech law and clueless social media
shoe on wrong foot

Germany’s tough new anti-hate speech law targeting social media platforms has, quite predictably, run afoul of a most important form of cultural dialogue: satire. The NetzDG law, which came into force January 1st, was bourn out of concern that the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were far too lax tackling hate speech and fake news rants. Right-wing politicians - and publishers who love them - have continued to deride the law as censorship.

To ring in the New Year, social media platform Twitter suspended the account of German satire magazine Titanic (January 2), reportedly for posting imaginary statements of a prominent far-right politician. Real New Year’s Eve posts from Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) deputy Beatrix von Storch, considered inflammatory, led to Twitter suspending her account for half a day. The far-right AfD is popular among xenophobes, antisemites, racists and neo-Nazis and members have frequently used social media to expound on their beliefs. Twitter reinstated Titanic’s account after three days. (See more about hate speech here)

"The last few days have emphatically shown that private companies cannot correctly determine whether a questionable online statement is illegal, satirical or tasteless yet still democratically legitimate," said Free Democrat Party (FDP) general secretary Nicola Beer to Die Welt am Sonntag (January 7). The FDP, Greens and Left party want NetzDG scrapped and replaced with a measure creating an “endowed authority” as decision maker. (See more about media in Germany here)

"It is not acceptable for US companies such as Twitter to influence freedom of expression or press freedoms in Germany," said Green Party chairperson Simone Peter. "Last year, we proposed a clear legal alternative that would hold platforms such as Twitter accountable without making them judges." (See more about social media here)

Justice Minister Heiko Maas proposed the law - Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG Network Enforcement Act) - last year and saw it through the Bundestag. It requires social media platforms with a reach over two million people to expeditiously act on hate speech complaints with stiff fines for tardiness. One of his tweets from 2010, calling somebody “an idiot,” was scrubbed, reported Die Welt (January 8).

Publisher sets New Year’s book sales on fire
can't stop the presses

The New Year’s fireworks had barely quieted before the publishing world saw, arguably, the biggest book sales since Harry Potter. Buyers lined up at booksellers in several US cities, notably Washington DC, and some outside the US, notably Berlin, to claim a first edition copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the account, now famous, of US president Donald Trump’s early months in the White House. The book immediately topped the Amazon bestseller list. It is now, officially, a sellout. Those looking for the hardcopy or paperback will wait two to four weeks. The Kindle version is ready to go.

Needless to say, publisher Henry Holt & Co. managed the release with a perfection usually ascribed to a major motion picture. The first excerpt - read: teaser - was published by the Guardian (UK) Wednesday morning local time (January 3) followed by more tasty morsels, some salacious, in US media throughout the day, into the night and the next day. The wave circled the globe. The book was to be released Tuesday January 9.

All the president’s men (and women) took to the airwaves to denounce the book while others gasp and cackled. President Trump erupted on Twitter and ordered his personal attorney to send “cease and desist” letters meant to intimidate author Wolff and publisher Henry Holt & Co. president Steve Rubin. Every publisher knows libel law and the limits of prior restraint. Mr. Rubin moved the publication date up by four days. (See more about press/media freedom here)

“As a privately held company we do we not reveal sales figures,” said Henry Holt spokesperson Pat Eisemann, quoted by Variety (January 6), “but the book went back to press several times prior to publication. We monitor the stock daily.” Henry Holt & Co. is a venerable US imprint, part of Macmillan. It is owned by major publisher Holtzbrinck, based in Stuttgart, Germany, with is also part-owner of German news magazine Die Zeit.

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