Iran's culture cyber-war
The mullahs' attempts to limit Internet freedom in their country are doomed to fail, and won't stop the ongoing erosion of their authority.
My first thought upon reading the Request for Information from the Iranian government's Information Technology Research Centre on filters to clean up "pollution of the Internet sphere with immoral sites that can endanger the moral health of any society" was that this would be a wonderful opportunity for collaboration between the fundamentalists of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Shia Islam.
If there's anyone who has tried, albeit with limited success, to fight the pollution of their society's moral health by immoral websites, it is the Haredim. Particularly in the United States, where they have amassed an impressive array of web filters which are somehow meant to keep the filth out.
Over the last fifteen months, millions of words, some of them even true, have been written about the threat posed by the Internet to repressive regimes, and about how Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in bringing down Arab dictators.
We forget, however, that before social networks became an engine of social change, webophobes everywhere saw the Internet mainly as a source of dark temptation and indecent pleasures.
Tehran's cleric-rulers fear the potential for political organizing that internet freedom creates. They still remember how the Shah was brought down by millions of audio cassettes containing the sermons of their spiritual father Ayatollah Khomeini.
Their fear of the corrupting (or liberating) effect of every type of popular and adult entertainment is also very real. Just at the Haredi rabbis have tried (and failed) to close off their followers from evil influences of the web, the mullahs are now waging their own cyber culture war.
The Internet threatens a regime such as Iran's in every possible sphere – politics, security, religion, society, information - but whether they opt for advanced web filters or go all the way and construct a "halalweb," a separate intranet cut off from all foreign elements, it won't change the ongoing erosion of their authority. Like most attempts at censorship, it will ultimately be self-defeating.
Iran's citizens' problem is not a lack of internet access, it's a lack of freedom and basic civil rights. If the dynamics for a revolution are in place, then cutting them off from the web won't prevent it from taking place.
This doesn't work in the long or in the short term, especially if normal economic activity is supposed to continue unabated. In Egypt, in the last rather desperate gasp of Hosni Mubarak's regime, the Internet was blocked for nearly a week. Did it save him? In fact, it only forced people to get more creative about how they communicated.
Part of the panoply of modern warfare – or "politics by other means" – involves the use of technology. Take for example Commando Solo, a heavily modified C-130 transport aircraft with which the US airforce can "beam in" wi-fi to large areas where communications infrastructure is lacking. This can also be done with a range of airborne, space- or ground-based gadgets.
This is also an undeniably provocative step, but one which falls short of actual boots on the ground or dropping of bombs.
But most importantly, dissidents on the ground are utilizing every crack in the system and every possible ingenuity to circumvent the restrictions. They are doing this around the world under repressive regimes. In the Middle East, in countries such as Syria, this phenomenon long predates the Arab Spring uprisings.
Take one activist, for example, who starting in 2008 set out to, as he put it, "deliver a proxy program to each and every Syrian Internet user".
"So we developed an email campaign to promote this," he told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in an interview. "It started off with ten of us each sending the link to the software via email to 100 contacts, and asking him or her to send it to all of their contacts. It’s hard to know just how many people we actually reached, but I estimate thousands got the email in just the first day of the campaign, which ran from 2008 to 2009."
Did the Assad regime fall as a result? No, but its effect was quickly seen. Facebook, which was banned until last year in Syria soon became the third most popular site in the country, and the number of this activist group's supporters on Facebook swelled to some 10,000.
Again, this kind of action alone will not be enough to dislodge the ayatollahs or their allies in Syria. But the flipside is that all attempts to block them are ultimately doomed to fail.