Is shutting down Iranian propaganda websites cyber-freedom fighting or cyber-terrorism?
Update: Another great blog post on this subject from Evgeny Morozov at ForeignPolicy.com, and more from Noah Schachtman at Wired’s Danger Room. Particularly interesting is the ‘blowback’ that could result if Iran’s network gatekeepers see too much denial of service attacks coming from abroad.
When we see a situation like the one now transpiring across Iran, linked-in Americans feel like we want to do something, anything, to feel like we’re contributing to rectifying wrongs that are being done. It’s important to feel like you’re doing more than just bearing witness. And while people watching at home could easily make donations after events like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Asian tsunami, there isn’t nearly as much as you can do when protesters are being beaten by thugs on motorcycles in the streets of Tehran.
Still, I’m troubled to see that Twitter and other internet services are being used in a pro-active effort to shut down websites in Iran that are part of the current regime’s propaganda operation. Actively seeking to shutdownthe websites of your political opponents is an act of censorship that is comparable to the radio signal jamming that was used by the Soviet Union and abhorred by the United States throughout the Cold War. Restricting speech as a political tactic, however propagandistic, is a dangerous road to go down.
Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post (disclosure: my former boss) drew his considerable audience’s attention to the Twitter feed @StopAhmadi which has been encouraging Twitter users to download information that will help them bring down government websites. More than 1,300 people have downloaded StopAhmadi’s packet of information with software and a series of URLs to target on Iranian government websites. They appear to have had some success in shutting down some of the sites.
For instance, when you try to go to IRIB, one of the government media organs, you get this screen now:
So while the Iranian government is being castigated for shutting down websites and restricting the flow of media out of Iran, people in the West are coming back from the other direction and doing the same thing.
It’s also possible that the Iranian government has gotten some revenge. Andrew Sullivan highlighted the crashing of TehranBureau.com, one of the English-language websites that’s proved indispensable in covering the events of the past few days. The outlet has confirmed that allegation via its own Twitter feed. And it seems difficult to me to condemn the Iranian regime for stifling the free flow of information when its opponents are working to do the same thing.
Moreover, when the shoe has been on the other foot, Americans have not been too pleased. Consider President Obama’s recent speech on cybersecurity where he identified the denial of service attacks on Georgian government websites by entities within Russia during last year’s war as an example of the kind of use of cyberwarfare that state and non-state actors are increasingly engaging in. It’s hard for the US government to condemn such actions now and in the future when its own citizenry might be doing the same thing.
Certainly, there might be situations where bringing down a website is justified. The United States may have been able to disrupt some aspects of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda by jamming broadcasts from Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, or RTLM, the Rwandan radio station that went beyond hateful speech and actually helped coordinate the actions of the genocidaires. It chose not to do so because of an overly rigid commitment to the Cold War commitment to open airwaves described above. That was a mistake.
But while there are certainly elements of a propaganda war going on, the world, including the Iranian public, knows to take the information on websites like IRIB with a sizable grain of salt. Moreover, seeing the tenor of the propaganda can also offer US government analysts insights into the thinking of the elites within the regime, and denying them information from those outlets can actually make it more difficult to structure a response.
So while I understand the desire to do something, anything, to help out the people in the streets of Iran’s cities who are fighting the good fight, I think it’s a poor choice to work in a coordinated fashion to crash Iranian government websites. It helps to excuse the Iranian regime’s own cyberwarfare, and it’s not in keeping with the principles of free speech and open access to information, however false it might be.