June 16, 2009
Street demonstrations, a police crackdown, and violence. Security forces, trained in the traditional tactics of crowd control, find it hard to cope with a networked, anonymous and decentralized protest movement that can adapt to new situations and coordinate actions faster than they can. The protesters embrace new, high tech, networked tactics of mass protest, civil disobedience and resistance. Half way around the world, supporters of the demonstrators know of events before police do. Political leaders, unable to effectively manage political perceptions at home and around the world begin to lose control, and are faced with a stark choice: resort to unrestrained force and lose support, or capitulate to the protesters.
This is not Iran in 2009, but Seattle in 1999, according to Netwar in the Emerald City, a RAND Corporation report written by Paul de Armond in 2001. The WTO protest in Seattle was but one early example of the emerging theory of netwar, coming into its own this past weekend with the protests following the disputed Iranian elections.
In this most recent incarnation, free Western-based commercial services have been the mainstay of the Iranian opposition on the Net - Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, with various blogging services coming a close fourth. Mobile technology is omnipresent, with video and pictures in real time common. The government has responded with SSL/TLS filtering, tracking IP addresses and blocking access to proxy servers, as well as wiretapping cell phone communications using technology purchased from Western companies like Nokia. Within a few hours or less, the information technologies that are the mainstay of modern society had become its weapons.
The theory and practice of netwar often takes radically divergent forms, but the principles remain the same: the application of traditional and non-traditional methods of opposition, or low-intensity conflict, by activists, social movements or other non-state actors on a regional or global stage coordinated through decentralized, flexible networks and employing a high degree of information technology sophistication. The strength of any network is determined by its organization, doctrine, technology and social ties, and not necessarily its level of funding, weaponry or training.
To a large extent, netwar has become the natural result of advancing information technologies which allow us to create and interact with one another via larger social networks. The ability to mobilize information, resources and support is magnified almost in direct relation to this.
In 1994, the Zapatistas of southern Mexico rebelled following the passage of NAFTA. Faced with a first, quick military defeat at the hands of the Mexican Army, they withdrew to the hills of Chiapas and instead focused on reaching out to sympathetic activists throughout the world, relying primarily on the nascent Internet. Within weeks, global pressure by human rights and other progressive international activists forced the Mexican government to halt its offensive. Since 1994, a low-intensity conflict has emerged and stabilized, with neither side gaining the upper hand - but for the Zapatistas, survival itself was a victory, and support for them and their ideas spread rapidly.
In 1999, the World Trade Organization was holding its Millenial Summit in Seattle, Washington. For nearly a week, the summit was besieged by anti-globalization protesters, many of them inspired by the Zapatistas. The opening ceremonies of the summit were shut down, and the subsequent meetings made little headway. Decentralized groups of protesters engaged in civil disobedience lockdowns, while more participated in mass marches and others were involved in confrontations with police and property destruction. Rather than rely on the "corporate media" to carry their message, protesters created the Indymedia network of user created news sites. Cell phones were used to coordinate actions and report on police movements, as were Nextel walkie talkies.
During the years that followed, other advances grew out of these experiences. One example was TxTMob, an SMS text messaging service similar to Twitter, developed to coordinate protests at the 2004 Democratic and Republican political conventions. Police and government leaders around the world also adapted, establishing proven methods of response, preemption and perception management during protests to deal with any unrest. Research into new, high tech crowd control weapons and tactics was also undertaken. The advantage once held by the protesters was soon held by the security forces.
However, the last few years have seen the growth of technologies, including the necessary common access and knowledge to use them, that have shifted the advantage back to the protesters on the street. In particular, we see the use of otherwise commercial applications and services like Twitter or Facebook, as well as the tech savvy to just load a government website and reload it every 30 seconds with thousands of others until it crashes through a denial of service attack. Moldova's failed "Twitter revolution" of earlier this year or the war between Russia and Georgia last year gave us a glimpse of netwar, but only in Iran today are we seeing a full convergence.
Few people anticipated the sustained protests witnessed over the past few days in Iran. Some have likened it to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-5, or the Tienanmen Square protests before that. Neither of those though comes close to describing what is happening now. Critics of the opposition, and critics of the United States, have characterized it as a rebellion funded and instigated by the United States against Ahmadinejad; this too, does not come close to explain what is occurring, neither in the rapidity, seeming inevitability or flexibility of the clashes, in the streets or on the web in the increasingly interconnected global consciousness.
Early polls in Iran indicated a variety of likely outcomes: a narrow victory by either the reformist candidate Mousavi or the incumbent Ahmadinejad would probably have gone unremarked, with the most predicted result being the possibility of a run-off election between Ahmadinejad and one of his rivals. Amhadinejad polled very well among the poor and working class Iranians, but when, two hours after polling ended, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with 63% in an election where turnout was 85%, tempers flared among the Iranian middle class and the opposition took to the streets declaring the election rigged.
With them, almost out of nowhere, came the netwar.
Among the students of Tehran, Internet access and mobile phones are as commonplace as on any Western campus. When the results came in, many students reported results directly via Twitter and blogging sites. However, as allegations of fraud, and the resulting outcry, increased, access to static websites were often shut down. Twitter was the flexible alternative, accessible via the web or mobile phone, or using the Twitter API. It proved to be the best, fastest and least controllable medium by which to update and mobilize.
Within moments of an incident or protest, pictures were spread, videos shared on YouTube and in real time, updates sent. As quickly as the Iranian government tracked down bloggers and Tweeters and arrested them, proxy servers were set up. As the government filtered SSL/TLS protocols and access to sites like Facebook, other sites were being set up to facilitate Distributed Denial of Service attacks against pro-government sites. The effect was that none of this was happening in a vacuum.
Each government attack was publicized, fueling more protests, requiring a larger crackdown, and the cycle seems set to continue. Online, opposition activists have banded closer together, launching sites such as http://iran.whyweprotest.net/ with the help of groups like thepiratebay.org and Anonymous/4chan. The government, meanwhile, has stepped up threats to bloggers and has begun jamming BBC Persian TV signals and web proxies.
Ultimately, as Gwynne Dyer points out, the rules for street demonstrations are different in Iran. Government actions have hardly stopped people from continuing to protest. However, the repercussions beyond Iran, of perhaps the first full fledged netwar of the 21st century, are already profound.
Beyond this though, it is sometimes difficult to grasp the reality of events. People, ordinary people, have been killed and detained in Iran, the government in power resorting to force as governments so often do best. But perhaps, now that we are connected, the people of Iran and the rest of the world, when talk turns again to invasion and war in the future - regardless of the outcome of this current round of conflict - we might be able to stop it as we were not able to before.
Because the face of this netwar, I now realize as I check my Twitter account for updates, is not the B1 bomber, or the suicide bomber. It is a young girl in Tehran, my most recent follower, explaining how she must leave her dorm room because the Basij militia is attacking, and it is no longer safe for her to stay.
Ordinary people like us are not powerful, but neither are we powerless, either. Or alone.
UPDATE: Thanks for the insight, Slashdot! For a great overview and timeline of events in Iran, check out Fark.com's Iran discussions. In particular, Fark user Tatsuma created a running overview of events available here.