Selling Democracy by the Byte

[This week's Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. Updated and edited slightly from the original print version.]

Thirty years after the Revolution, the June 12th Iranian presidential elections seem to have catalysed a transformational moment in the nation’s history. One Western commentator writes:

The widespread, sustained, peaceful and courageous demonstrations by Iranians this week has been an astonishing and inspiring sight. In a way this feels like the anti-9/11.

Analysts have suggested that the rapid rise in popularity of moderate candidate Mir-Hosain Mousavi caught the theocratic regime’s leaders flat-footed. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute and long-time commentator on Middle-East affairs, writes:

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. Mousavi’s spokesman abroad, filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalbaf, alleges that the ministry even contacted Mousavi’s camp and said it would begin preparing the population for this victory.

The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

His narrative is, he admits, largely speculative.

The result, witnessed through countless independent blog posts, photos and videos, has been massive, occasionally violent protest in the streets of the capital Tehran and, according to reports, in Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz and Rasht as well.

One of the first signs that things were not as they should be was the shutdown of mobile telephone networks, especially SMS services, and blocking of access to social networking sites like Facebook.

A blog post by Renesys Corporation experts, who provide network data collection and analysis services, suggests that access to all but one of Iran’s five major international data connections has been severely degraded. Some have speculated that this is because the Government of Iran, which controls most national telecommunications systems, has imposed a strict regime of Internet filtering on its population.

Notwithstanding these events, activists organised their protest efforts through online messaging sites such as Twitter, which had apparently been overlooked by censors. One message implored activists to climb to the rooftops and give voice to their protest by shouting ‘Allah’u akhbar’ (God is great). By 4:00 a.m. local time on June 13th, the noise of the rooftop protest was deafening. The outcry has only increased since then. Significantly, the same tactic was used at the outset of the 1979 revolution that ousted the US-supported Shah of Iran and ultimately led to the rise to power of the current theocratic regime.

This riveting spectacle provides us with an object lesson in the effects of communications networks on democracy and social movements.

Tehran’s mobile telephone network is a state-controlled monopoly. It ceased to function effectively at the very moment when it would have been most useful to opposition organisers. Internet services, however, managed to struggle on, albeit at a much-degraded level of service. Most interestingly, apparent efforts to limit access to social networking capabilities were thwarted by the variety and nature of the resources themselves.

We can take two closely related lessons from this:

1) Centrally controlled communications resources are, in times of social crisis, extremely vulnerable to compromise; and

2) Information networks that rely on the ‘End to End Principle’ – that is, networks that join two end points without particularly caring how those two points connect – are still subject to compromise, but the damage can be mitigated either by routing around trouble spots or by connecting to different end points.

In short, the core design principle of the Internet, the concept of the ‘end to end’ network, is inherently democratic, empowering the individual at the expense of central control.

There’s a great deal more to be said about how this actually plays out in practice. In particular, the ways in which we store, access and transfer our data and, most importantly, our conceptions about who the data and the network actually belong to both have a direct and visible impact on the ability of our communications structures to survive stresses like the ones currently being imposed in Iran.

At the heart of the issue is an ongoing, unresolved tension between the sometimes anarchistic, sometimes communitarian nature of the Internet and the tendency of networks to be constructed, owned and operated according to centralist principles.

Put most simply, Internet users want to be able to share data as they see fit. Network operators – be they governments or corporate entitities – tend to frame the issue as: ‘My network. My rules.’

The question, ultimately, is: Who should control communications?

Both sides can make compelling arguments within their particular context. Network operators quite rightly want to be sure that they’ll be able to get a return on their investment and to protect the resource against abuse. Network users, again quite rightly, don’t want to be told how ‘their’ data should be handled.

And just in case the conflict wasn’t untidy enough, there’s a third side to this issue: Some information providers want to retain control over their data. It’s expensive and time-consuming to produce, they argue, and they have a right to be rewarded for their efforts.

Major content interests, including media sites, music and video producers, have therefore allied themselves, philosophically at least, with the network owners. They have accurately concluded that if you control the means of transmission, you control who can access your data, and how.

Whatever its inspiration and motivation, such an approach is inherently undemocratic. In the worst-case scenario, as we’re witnessing in Iran right now, it leads to abuses that subvert the right of people to express themselves, individually and collectively. In more generic, consumer-related terms, its effects are more subtle.

An uncomfortable compromise currently exists between the inherently democratic forces of market capitalism and more centralist approaches. While upstart players in the media and communications markets tend to subvert established rules, larger, more resource-rich entities tend toward control. (It’s not unusual to see upstarts move from the first camp to the second as they mature.)

The general trend these days, both philosophically and practically, seems to be toward centralised control. Media sites and media playing software want you to stream video rather than save it (and, heaven help us, share it freely with others). Network operators fight back against so-called ‘peer to peer’ software because it maximises ad hoc network usage on an individual basis and subverts the traditional client/server network, which has clear points of control.

There is a concerted, industry-wide move afoot toward a ‘pay to play’ approach concerning all data transferred over our networks. Rather than selling access to the network, elements of the communications and media industries are increasingly focused on charging for access to the data itself.

This has the (sometimes) unintended consequence of putting a price tag on democracy – at least, on how democracy is expressed via communications networks. If you’re wealthy enough, you can have access to all the information you want. If you’re poor, you’re increasingly limited in what (or how much) you can do on the Internet.

Pacific Islanders, living and working as they do with extremely limited communications resources, would do well to study this phenomenon and to consider its implications.