Is it possible to control free speech?
The question is as relevant as ever, especially in light of the internet and the #iranelection. After all, the tradition of control is old, but it has evolved. When the soapbox speech was invented, so was a club to the head. With the printing press came book burnings. With the phone, wiretapping. With attachment to a cultural identity came Eastern bloc ministries of culture. With the internet, we are witnessing deep packet inspection, government-mandated filtering software, and who knows what else. As information has evolved so have attempts to control it, but is the internet something different? Can countries successfully control, alter, and shape internet communication?
The world’s attention is currently focused on Iran. Green twitter icons (showing support for Iranian protestors) have spread faster than dumpy British people singing for Simon Cowell. CNN, the State Department, and Rainn Wilson are tracking tweets coming out of Iran. Yet whether the information is correct or complete is questionable given the extent of Iranian control.
Iran is at the forefront of authoritarian power over the internet (that we know about…). A recent article in the Wall Street Journal details the extent of the monitoring systems in place in Iran. All of the country’s internet traffic filters through a central hub, giving the government extensive control over the internet tap and the ability to block access. Even more troubling is the government’s use of deep-packet inspection, which is a process which deconstructs digital packets of information, checks them for keywords, and then reconstructs them in real-time. The monitoring software could account for the internet in Iran running at a tenth of its regular speed. The technology could allow the Iranian government to match posts with individuals and crackdown on those who oppose the state. The Times reports that in response to the election Iran has also taken down text messaging, a popular means of organizing demonstrations, while police have taken to harassing people with cameras at demonstrations. The government has also attacked or blocked websites that they deem not supportive enough of the administration. Of course the game of cat-and-mouse continues with services like Tor that provide citizens ways of masking digital identities and leaping over digital roadblocks and a whole network of international sympathizers lending their IP address (essentially their digital signature) to Iranians.
Despite the sophistication of the Iranian government’s tactics, they have not been entirely successful. An earlier effort by the Basij, a paramilitary force under government control, to create 10,000 pro-government blogs ultimately failed. More recently, the stream of tweets, photographs, and videos coming out of Iran is evidence of a control failure in itself. The video of Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death on the street in Tehran has mobilized support for the opposition movement worldwide. And despite attempts by the Iranian government, the only thing rendering the revolutionary-minded stream #iranelection useless was the overwhelming rush of support by Americans.
Of course Iran is not a singular case—the Berkman Center estimates that roughly three-dozen governments monitor and control their citizens’ use of the internet. From “the great firewall” of China, to computer attacks on critics of the Russian government, to U.S. “terrorist” monitoring, to firewalls at universities and work, internet control is a constant presence. Yet for the moment, free speech appears to be winning. In China, the “grass mud horse,” a mythical creature that is the Chinese equivalent of the brand fcuk–snuck past censors (nytimes story). And despite all the controversy, Iran’s leadership continues to refuse to shut down the Internet, presumably fearing the economic, social, and political repercussions. The internet is too large and too powerful; trying to corral it is like going at the ocean with a broom.
Yet, having definitively proved for all time that the internet is a source of free speech, or at least assuming it, I want to dig a little deeper and look at the implications. They are less heartening than you might think. We are inclined to believe that people want, no, crave democracy. Yet Putin is popular, the Chinese government enjoys tremendous support, and Ahmadinejad has many adherents. At the end of the day, the internet is not the spur of democracy in the side of authoritarian governments. Palfrey, Etling, and Faris, researchers at the Berkman Center, submitted an op-ed to the Washington Post in which they argue convincingly why the Iranian revolution, if it happens, will take place on the streets, not on the web. They argue that the “internal architecture” of tweets, blogs, and facebook limits political nuance and expression; that governments can censor and control parts of the internet; that the “freedom to scream” and vent online may actually serve as a psychological release and assist authoritarian regimes; and most convincingly, they cite their own research into the Iranian blogosphere which shows, rather unsurprisingly, that the Iranian blogosphere reflects the political reality on the ground, where the regime has a great deal of support :
While the Iranian blogosphere is indeed a place where women speak out for their rights, young people criticize the morality police, journalists fight censorship, reformists press for change, and dissidents call for revolution, it is also a place where the supreme leader is praised, the Holocaust denied, the Islamic Revolution defended and Hezbollah celebrated. It is also a place where Islamist student groups mobilize and pro-establishment leaders, including President Ahmadinejad, reach out to their constituents within the Iranian public.
Even in a world without repressive governments, the internet can only be as good, as wise, and as free as we are. The question beneath how we represent what we believe is still what we believe. Organization arises not from twitter and texts, but from a shared network of believers eager to do real work, willing to brave tear gas and police and severe consequences. The internet is changing everything, and nothing.