June 16, 2009

Iran's Netwar

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.


P. Orin Zack said...

Indeed. As you say, the roots of using communications as a weapon of peace go back farther than we might think. I dramatized how something as simple as a few phone calls could pose a threat to those who want to wage war as part of a series of short stories. This particular tale is called "Vocal Threat", and it starts like this...

+ + +
Searching for patterns in the ocean of Internet traffic flowing through the agency’s peering point snooper wasn’t Craig’s idea of a good time, but at least it was better than sitting through yet another of Mr. Kulya’s endless lectures. The life of a spook trainee, he mused, was much like that of a newbie in many other fields. The fact that his drudgery involved violating the privacy of unsuspecting citizens, rather than simply being responsible for their lives, as a medical intern would be, or their livelihood, had he been a law clerk, left a sour taste in his soul. Still, there were compensations.

“You okay, Craig?” a woman’s voice said close to his left ear. “You’ve been staring at that IP registration for about three minutes now.”

He blinked self-consciously and roused himself. “Oh. Hi, Kelly. I guess I was daydreaming.”

She pulled up a chair. “About what?” After glancing at the screen, she added, “Did you just catch Congressman Fox in something?”

+ + +

The whole story is at this URL:

Anonymous said...

Your post showed up on Slashdot and I enjoyed reading it

Spekkio said...

This is a brilliant piece of writing. Bravo.

Not to toot my own horn, but years and years go, when the Internet was just starting to go mainstream (i.e. the old days of AOL on a 14.4Kbps modem), I remember predicting that future wars would be fought online. Of course, I never imagined it would be quite like this. I figured it would be hackers breaking into sites, stealing information, and wreaking havoc.

I don't suppose there's any evidence of hacking going on in the current Iranian situation?

Oh, and interesting point - apparently nobody in Iran can get onto Second Life. http://www.gamepolitics.com/2009/06/17/protests-rage-iranian-second-life-residents-are-missing-action

Anonymous said...

ditto via slashdot. An interesting post. Thanks.

John Jones said...

I think that its worth mentioning how to be anonymous correctly

Tor is a good start


Nathan Otto said...

Thanks for this article. I particularly liked this:
"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."
My organization, http://www.p5y.org, is creating a global movement to use social networking technology to create world peace by 2014.

hardran3 said...

Thank you for such a well written informative article.

T said...

Really good stuff! Greate work!

KY said...

very well written commentary, enjoyed reading it. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Whenever we talk politics in a family get together, me being the "wizz-kid" I always try to explain to them the significance of the internet in future clashes and how governments are underestimating the Internet. I always tell them that mass collaboration over the internet is something they wont ever be able to control. Nobody is foreseeing the consequences of public using web. The internet empowered the powerless. The power is back to the people.

"Ordinary people like us are not powerful, but neither are we powerless, either. Or alone."

This is what reminded me of those family gathering conversations. Yes, I agree, very much. Thank you for a good piece, like several many anons above I was linked through slashdot as well.

geremycondra said...

First off, let me thank you for your article- you have the eloquence to say the things I think many people are beginning to feel as we watch this unfold, and that's a great gift. Keep up the good work.

Secondly, I'd just like to mention that I'm surprised the tools of netwar have proven so delicate in this engagement. SMS is largely down, large swaths of the internet are inaccessable, and the media has been entirely muzzled. In fact, if I were forced to describe the kind of war these would play a role in, my answer would most likely be "a very short one". So I have to wonder- do you see these services becoming more robust, becoming better weapons of war? Or do you see government and corporate concerns beating these swords into plowshares?

JournalSquared said...


Yes, it has proved fragile in a conventional sense, but also fairly resilient.

I think the best way to see this is that it is presenting nations a choice between the modern and the obsolete: you can be a modern nation, with the Internet and all its risks, or you can be North Korea, completely walled off and lagging behind. The only exception to this rule is the People's Republic of China, it seems.

But then, if Tienanmen happened today, it would be a very different story. If a government is willing to destroy its nation's economic and information infrastructure in order to survive, then it can. But that presents a stark choice, which people will eventually resent.

Mona said...

Supoerb/ have linked

Andries Spies said...

Here is my big question. How can any company in his right mind do what Nokia did: Selling censorship technology to the Irian government?

Maxwell Rathbone said...

Don't normally post comments, but I felt this was an exceptionally well-written article. Thank you. (from /.)

Spekkio said...


You really have to ask? Profits! See Ferengi Rule of Acquisition #10: Greed is Eternal. Also #34, War is Good for Business.


Daniel Howard said...


This blog post is inconsistent with reporting done by the New York Times: [1]

"While it is easy to get the impression, from following English-language Twitter feeds, that Iranians who are unhappy about the official election results are communicating with each other non-stop through the Web, a source in Iran told The Lede that Twitter may be more important in getting information on events out to the world than as an organizing tool. This source asked 20 people at Thursday’s opposition rally in Tehran how they found out about it and not one of them learned about the rally through Twitter. People at the rally said that they still rely on text messaging and information posted on Farsi-language Web sites, not Twitter, which our source says is 'primarily being used to communicate with the outside world.'"

The current story is not about America, Twitter, Facebook, Web 2.0, or any of that. This story is about the People of Iran attempting to stand up and assert their will in the face of Autocracy.

[1] http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/friday-updates-on-irans-disputed-election/

JournalSquared said...

@Daniel Howard

Thanks for the comment, and the compare. Never been brought up with the NYT in the same breath before.

Still, this piece is specifically on the Iranian protests/movement within the context of the theory of netwar, or strategic information warfare.

You are absolutely correct: this is not about America or Twitter; this is about the Iranian people. However, the theory of netwar or strategic information warfare provides an interesting lens through which the conflict may be analyzed. That's what I was writing about.

Both text messaging and Farsi language sites have played an important role, and that role is consistent as well with the practice of netwar.

The New York Times article was published on June 19, after I had written this post. One thing that is clear from the NYT reporting is that both Twitter and YouTube have proved invaluable tools of the Iranian opposition in spreading their message and generating sympathy on a global level. This may yet provide them with a significant strategic advantage as the conflict progresses and world opinion solidifies one way or the other. This fact is not lost on the Iranian government, which has expended considerable effort to close off information access to the outside world and has even created Twitter accounts itself to counter the opposition's message.

Twitter, while not responsible nor necessarily representative of the conflict inherently, has certainly emerged as a field of engagement for dominance of the information space within the conflict.

Spartacus O'Neal said...

Internet technology has played a catalytic role, but it is the networks of solidarity that make netwar effective. Networks of invisible peoples, like the forty-year-old World Indigenous Peoples' Movement, are emerging from media-enforced obscurity, but maintaining netwar narrative dominance requires ongoing affinity support. Nowhere in broadcast media has anyone offered precise analysis of indigenous versus industrial conflict in places like Bolivia and the other Andean countries. Only Real News, an Internet-based platform, has come close.