Don't Leave Iran's Cyber Dissidents Unarmed

It need not be this way. While both the United States and the European Union have used targeted sanctions against the worst violators of Internet freedom in Iran, they have not done enough to empower their victims.
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In a few short months, the world won't have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kick around anymore. Not that many on the world stage, save his fellow anti-American aspiring autocrats, will miss him. This is because, in June, the Islamic Republic of Iran will be holding the quadrennial charade that they call a presidential "election."

Chances are you remember the last time Iranians went to the polls to elect a president. It was 2009, and the result was widely recognized as fraudulent. The groundswell of opposition to the regime's meddling spawned a movement in the mold of similar "color revolutions" that challenged autocratic governments in Europe and Central Asia in the mid 2000s. Iran's anti-regime protests also seemingly served as a model for the activism that has convulsed the Arab world over the last three years.

Like the Arab Spring uprisings, Iran's 2009 post-election partisans made use of relatively new technologies to enable opposition organizing. Twitter and Facebook became key organizational and information dissemination tools, as did YouTube, a platform that shared the most disturbing images of the uprising with the world. Blogs become vectors for anti-regime sentiment and ideology. The world's social media evangelists and cyber utopians seemingly had a proof point about how connectivity and the social web were going to bring down tyrannical regimes the world over. Events following the election even gained the convenient cable TV shorthand of the "Twitter revolution."

With the benefit of hindsight we know that this view was at best wildly optimistic. Instead of crumbling before digital democrats, the Iranian regime has proved itself, through a combination of brutality, technological sophistication, and media savvy, to be more than capable of countering the organizational capacity of the web.

As I was told recently by an Iranian anti-regime activist, "the first thing that the [Iranian paramilitary forces] ask for when you have been detained is the password to your email and Facebook accounts." This approach, gaining access to the accounts of anti-regime activists, has allowed the regime to exploit the socially networked nature of online platforms like Facebook in a way that has allowed the regime to collapse wide swaths of opposition with unparalleled efficiency. As part of the ongoing cat-and-mouse game dissidents now share their log-in information with trusted friends whose duty it is to change the password in the event that one is arrested.

Not only is the regime adept at countering the organizational capacity of the social web, but it has also manipulated the architecture of the Internet to effectively counter anti-regime activity. Since the regime directly controls the country's largest and most important Internet Service Providers, several of which are owned directly by the praetorian Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime offers average Iranians a heavily filtered version of the web delivered at agonizingly slow speeds. This ability to filter out content, block, and slow access to content rich multimedia websites is a strikingly efficient way to deny Iranian citizens access to information.

And this is only the beginning of how the regime is manipulating the web's architecture. The truth is that the Iranian regime is working at this very moment to establish a national, or 'halal', intranet, a development that would allow the regime to block whatever existing outlets Iranians can still turn to for unbiased information -- including Google and Facebook. While the regime works towards the completion of this project, it is taking other steps to limit web access, including newly invigorated efforts to limit the use of Virtual Private Networks, and encrypted communications apps like WhatsApp, important tools utilized by those seeking anonymous and censorship free web surfing and mobile communication.

Disturbingly, non-Iranian multinational companies, including telecom giants like Nokia-Siemens, are the ones that have helped equip the Iranian government's filtering, spying, and censorship capabilities. While Nokia-Siemens has ended its relationship with the Iranian regime, the equipment and software that it provided the regime are being replaced or serviced by outside firms. While most doing so are Chinese companies, at least one, trovicor, is a German firm.

Finally, the regime is actively involved in what cyber utopian skeptic Evgeny Morozov has described as the "spinternet". This is a phenomenon where authoritarian governments actively seek to seed the social web -- blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages amongst them -- with pro-regime content. The Iranian government has been extremely aggressive, and successful, in these efforts. This is actually the main activity of the regime's much-vaunted "cyber-army," a force of at least several thousand that is paid to actively create the image online of a broad base of support for the regime.

To complicate matters further, regime-led efforts at subversion are far from the only challenges faced by Iran's web activists. Seemingly innocuous decisions by Western-based companies like Google can have grave impacts on dissident communities as well. Take the search giant's recent decision to disband Google Reader. The popular RSS reader, which allows for the easy aggregation of content from selected websites, is a tool that many Iranians seeking an end run around censorship of the Web have come to rely upon. Because the content consumed through Google Reader is provided through Google's servers, and on a relatively secure platform, it was extremely hard for the Iranian authorities to prevent access to information consumed through it without blocking all Google services. Now Iranians will be left with one less channel to access unbiased information about the outside world.

Combine this with the regime's continuing, and inevitably intensifying crackdown on journalists and activists in the run-up to the June elections, and you are left with the overwhelming impression that the regime has figured out how to neutralize the Internet, a tool that was once perceived to be a potent weapon against it.

It need not be this way. While both the United States and the European Union have used targeted sanctions against the worst violators of Internet freedom in Iran, they have not done enough to empower their victims. Going forward it is crucial that the U.S. government, Silicon Valley, global telecom providers, and the international community, come to a consensus on how they can effectively reinvigorate the organizational capacity of the Web by supplying Iranian dissidents with the tools that they need to fight for a better future. We have a moral obligation, and a material self-interest, in countering the regime's masterful manipulation of technology.

The social media utopians need to learn that technology does not produce the inevitable downfall of tyrants. But while it is true that technology is also a powerful tool in the hands of oppressors, this insight of the pessimists provides an insufficient guide to action. Arming democrats and civil society activists with the tools they need to organize is one of the concrete ways that we can help affect positive change in Iran from the inside. We cannot, as a matter of conscience, leave brave people to stand and fight tyranny alone and unaided.

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