Political battle fought in cyber-space

They
called it the Twitter revolution. Iran’s post-election protests showed the
world the power of new media to organise and publicise opposition in a controlled
society.

On
the anniversary of the Islamic revolution in 1979, once again Twitter, Facebook
and other internet tools could be crucial in helping the opposition organise
another major protest.

Since
Iran’s disputed election in June of last year, the cyber war between government
and opposition has taken on a whole new dimension.

“Absolutely
extraordinary and unprecedented” – that was the role of the internet in
Iran’s election dispute according to Hamid Dabashi, who presents an opposition
webcast to Iran from New York every week.

His
webcast is broadcast on YouTube, and his staff say it then goes
“viral” – spread across Iran by other websites, CDs and Bluetooth
links between mobile phones.

Mr
Dabashi described the role of the internet in helping to organise the huge
post-election demonstrations.

“Nobody
called for it except on the internet,” he said.

“Cyberspace
was buzzing with information that there was to be a demonstration from this
square to that square. As a result if there is a leadership… it is really the
networking that the internet has made possible.”

Raw
power

Just
over a week after the election, the footage of a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan,
bleeding to death from bullet wounds was sent from a mobile phone and relayed
around the world.

The
opposition believes she was shot by one of the government’s Basij militia.

The
Iranian government continues to deny responsibility, but the pictures have
swayed opinion internationally.

That
raw power has been noticed by governments.

The
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, hosted a conference recently on it in
Washington and proposed new support to try to free the internet from
censorship.

The
Iranian government has become far more sophisticated in its handling of the
internet as well.

A
day after the election, Iran closed the internet down entirely for half an
hour, then slowly loosened its grip, as the authorities struggled to gain
control.

“If
you look at what was going on after the election, it was very clear that they
had no solid plan in place,” explained Austin Heap of the Censorship
Research Center in San Francisco.

“The
way they were filtering, what they were filtering. Just basic things like the
speed the internet was operating at would change day by day, week by week. And
if you look at just the past three months their filtering attempts have become
more co-ordinated and organised.”

Crude
blocking

Mr
Heap has been writing an anti-censorship program, Haystack, which he hopes to
spread to internet users in Iran.

My
experience from two years in Iran was that both sides struggled to gain the
upper hand.

Any
program to prevent filtering would have a limited life, as the government
eventually found a way to block it.

But
at the same time the filtering system was crude and ineffective.

In
the turmoil that followed the election, that “mood swing” became even
more dramatic.

One
morning the whole BBC website would be inaccessible, and even usually secure
connections were blocked.

On
other days the controls would be mysteriously lifted, enabling us to use the
internet to broadcast live from our office in Tehran.

Now
Iran says it has organized a new “cyber army” with a more
sophisticated approach.

Supporters
tracked

According
to experts I spoke to in the United States, the Revolutionary Guards have
drafted, sometimes against their will, some of Iran’s bright young
internet-savvy generation.

Not
only are they helping to block opposition communications and track down
opposition supporters from their use of the web, they have taken the battle to
the enemy.

The
cyber army claimed responsibility recently for what Mr Heap said was a well
co-ordinated attack on Twitter and other websites.

“The
attacks were very well organised,” he told me.

“They
had back-up plans and back-up back-up plans, all of which got enacted. It was
clear with the timing and the co-ordination that people had planned this ahead
and were trying to make a statement.”

The
battle for control of the web is carried out between governments and
individuals.

Each
new censorship tool used by Iran or other authoritarian countries is taken up
as a challenge by many thousands of young computer experts around the world.

It
is a game of cat and mouse, likely to change the face of the internet for the
indefinite future.

Cyber
battle has become cyber war, and there is no sign of a ceasefire.