A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 29, 2009

Technology Can Serve the Regime, Too, But With Uncertain Results

A week ago the conventional wisdom of a lot of commentators was that social networking sites had transformed protest, that the Iranian demonstrators were able to circumvent the usual repressive controls by using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media against the regime. It may be time to rethink that analysis, which always had its critics. Farhad Manjoo at Slate is arguing that the regime itself is now effectively using the Internet against the protestors, and that, because all Internet traffic is routed through a single choke point, the government has a surveillance capability far beyond any possessed in earlier totalitarian societies:
According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran has one of the world's most advanced surveillance networks. Using a system installed last year (and built, in part, by Nokia and Siemens), the government routes all digital traffic in the country through a single choke point. Through "deep packet inspection," the regime achieves omniscience—it has the technical capability to monitor every e-mail, tweet, blog post, and possibly even every phone call placed in Iran. Compare that with East Germany, in which the Stasi managed to tap, at most, about 100,000 phone lines—a gargantuan task that required 2,000 full-time technicians to monitor the calls. The Stasi's work force comprised 100,000 officers, and estimates put its network of citizen informants at half a million. In the digital age, Iran can monitor its citizens with a far smaller security apparatus. They can listen in on everything anyone says—and shut down anything inconvenient—with the flip of a switch.
In other words, technology can be used to impose an Orwellian state as well. I think the important point here is that until the election troubles began, Iran was not a totalitarian society on East German lines, but an authoritarian state on the familiar Middle Eastern pattern, allowing enough freedoms to ensure a certain amount of societal acceptance of the system. There were independent voices and multiple competing candidates, even if some points of view were suppressed.

Since June 12, that has changed. Foreign media are either expelled or confined to their hotels. Opposition papers are seized or silent; many opposition figures, including prominent ones, have been arrested. As a result, the confusion Manjoo points to (including the wildly differing accounts of what happened at Baharestan Square last week) is actually intended. Confusion spreads terror. Stories of massacres and many dead keep people off the streets even if they didn't occur, and this works to calm things down. Something similar happened after the crackdown at Tienanmen Square in Beijing 20 years ago: to this day no one knows the real casualty figures.

The problem I see for the regime is that when one opts for the mailed fist, one makes choices. One of those choices is shutting down the flow of information. But in an information-driven globalized economy you also wall yourself off from commerce. It can work for a while, but eventually you either have to open up the Internet to some extent (even if with strict controls on content, as in China), or else you become a hermit kingdom like Burma or North Korea. I don't think most of the Iranian clerical establishment wants that. And of course, the tighter the totalitarian control, the more vulnerable it may be to collapsing when things ease just a bit. Manjoo noted parallels to East Germany, but the instant the wall opened, the fate of the German Democratic Republic was sealed: to mix a couple of metaphors, the handwriting was on the breached Berlin wall. Gorbachev tried, though glasnost and perestroika, to depressurize the Soviet Union without ending the Communist system, but the system, the Party, and the USSR itself soon imploded. The tight crackdown now in Iran may mean that when change does come, whether in a month, a year, or a decade, it will actually be a greater change than if a moderate reformist like Mousavi had won office this time.

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