Selling Democracy – ctd.

Farhad Manjoo says the Revolution will not be digitised. His recent Slate column, subtitled “How the Internet helps Iran silence activists” makes the obvious point that technology makes all aspects of communications easier – even the unpleasant ones. But his simplistic analysis misses the import of his own observation.

The key to all this is his failure to distinguish between the network and the protocol. Manjoo says that the Internet helps Iran’s repressive efforts. That’s not true, at least not nearly to the extent he thinks. The network – the physical infrastructure of cables, switching and routing equipment, is what’s trapping people right now. If it weren’t for the end-to-end nature of the software protocols that make up what we conveniently call the Internet, little if any news at all would have emerged from Iran.

Manjoo points out the structural weakness in Iran’s communications systems well enough – they all have to pass through the single point of control. One of the first actions the government took following the announcement of the presidential vote results (widely considered to be false) was to severely limit access all but one of its international data connections.

Interestingly, this disruption was short-lived. Data is flowing across all official (and a few unofficial) paths to the outside world. Traffic volumes, however, are drastically reduced. James Cowie of Renesys Corp. asks the burning question: Why did the regime not cut access completely? He suggests three possible reasons:

  1. The cynics. Perhaps the government has left the Internet intact so that they can use it to surveil and round up dissidents. Perhaps they even put bandwidth constraints in place to make it easier to cope with the volumes of traffic that need to be captured and filtered.
  2. The optimists. Perhaps the government has realized that a modern economy relies on the Internet to such an extent that it cannot be turned off, for fear of disrupting financial transactions and business communications. Iran’s Internet ecosystem is relatively rich, and the impact on their economy of a sustained Internet shutdown would be significant. Why make it harder for companies to do business in Iran at a time when oil revenues are cratering and foreign investment is looking for reasons to take a walk?
  3. The realists. Perhaps the government is too busy with other things to worry about the Internet. Governments aren’t well-suited to run the Internet, and they don’t completely understand how it works. The Internet has never been “turned off” before, and it would take creativity and thoughtful action to figure out who to ask in order to get it done. So it simply hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. Good thing, too, because they might not be able to turn it on again.

[emphasis mine]

I’m inclined to agree with Cowie in his suspicion that 3 is the most likely, although I’d guess that there are likely at least one or two more pragmatic (possibly enlightened or even passively subversive) technical managers who know the importance of keeping the trains running, even if they’re not all on time.

But as long as it continues to function, the Internet will allow private data to flow. Adhering to Mitch Kapor’s famous assertion that the Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it, it’s reasonable to conclude that Iran’s Internet is terribly damaged, but continues to function.

So Manjoo’s conclusion is wrong. The Revolution may not be digitised, but it’s not because of the Internet; it’s in spite of it. The most effective anti-information measures taken to date by the ruling junta have been the arrest and arbitrary detention of citizen journalists and attacks by Basiji on anyone seen carrying electronic recording gear, even mobile phones.

The repression being experienced there is brutal and it’s being carried out largely by human beings.

That said, technological dangers do exist. The physical communications network in Iran is centralised by design and controlled by the state. Quelle surprise. If I were a well-funded and resourceful opposition member in Iran today, I’d be investing no small resources in the acquisition of state of the art VSAT and mesh-enabled equipment. Such technologies are much more difficult to control because their interconnection points are decentralised and distributed.

One example: It would be trivially easy to write firmware for the Apple iPhone that allowed mesh networking capabilities. Mesh network protocols are opportunistic, agnostic processes that appropriate and share Internet connectivity on an ad hoc basis. In layman’s terms, anyone with access to the Internet (say, via 3G or a wireless hotspot) can share it with anyone within a reasonable distance. The next person in line can also share that link, effectively extending the range and usefulness of even a nominal Internet connection.

In order to disrupt such a network, you’d have to hunt down innumerable satellite dishes and easily concealed wireless access points.

That’s not at all impossible. In fact, there are already reports of Basiji entering homes in search of satellite dishes. But here’s the thing: given a sufficiently large number of end-points, the measures required to remove them all could prove toxic to the regime. In the best case scenario, private communications remain possible (if not entirely convenient); in the worst case scenario, the crackdown is so widespread that the Khamene’i regime loses the last shreds of its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, possibly leading to actual insurrection instead of protest.

There’s a general lesson to be taken from this: All of our communications networks are susceptible to the very same suppression and censorship as Iran’s. Networks the world over are centralised and designed with control points similar to Iran’s built in. The Wall Street Journal observes:

Countries with repressive governments aren’t the only ones interested in such technology. Britain has a list of blocked sites, and the German government is considering similar measures. In the U.S., the National Security Agency has such capability, which was employed as part of the Bush administration’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program.” A White House official wouldn’t comment on if or how this is being used under the Obama administration.

The US surveillance of domestic and international traffic is equally intrusive, though not nearly so obstructive as that experienced by Iranians today. It is made easier by exactly the same design vulnerabilities.

But more important than this observation is its corollary: Decentralised networks are critical to the protection of the fundamentally democratic right to communicate. Without communications technologies that reflect this fundamental value, the right to free speech is limited. In the worst cases, it becomes a liability.

Nokia-Siemens, defending its role in the creation of a centralised mobile telecommuncations network, stated recently that:

In most countries around the world, including all EU member states and the U.S., telecommunications networks are legally required to have the capability for Lawful Intercept and this is also the case in Iran. Lawful Intercept is specified in standards defined by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) and the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project).

Yes, decentralised communications come at a cost. They make surveillance efforts of all kinds more difficult. The two competing questions we need to ask ourselves are:

  1. How far are we willing to compromise ourselves in the pursuit of state security?
  2. How much are we willing to compromise state surveillance capability in order to protect our own freedom to communicate?

These are knotty issues with complex and often subtle ramifications on society. They demand a level of public engagement on the principle – and more importantly, the practice – of free speech that we haven’t seen since the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Technology feels like magic to most of us. We don’t – and don’t want to – know how our communications come about. We just want them to happen.

But in order for them to happen, we must inform – and arm – ourselves with the knowledge, understanding, law and policies that make it possible. Facile observations like Manjoo’s do little if anything to support such an effort.

The Revolution will indeed be digitised, but only if we want it enough.