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Leah Anthony Libresco

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Iran's Revolution Will Be Twittered (and Blogged and YouTubed and...)

Posted: 06/16/2009 7:18 pm

Twit:
(1) twerp: someone who is regarded as contemptible
(2) tease: harass with persistent criticism or carping; aggravation by deriding or mocking or criticizing

I'm guessing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is currently mostly concerned with the second definition. Since the preliminary results for the Iranian election were announced, a steady stream of updates has been accumulating on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites. (For Andrew Sullivan's report on feeds to follow, click here).

The tweets are becoming so important to ongoing coverage of Iran, that Twitter has delayed previously scheduled maintenance so that the outage will occur in the early morning of Iran's time zone and will therefore be minimally disruptive.

In addition to providing first hand reports on the violence (especially important now that most foreign journalists have been asked to leave), Iranian bloggers are using Twitter and Facebook to organize giant rallies in the streets of Tehran. One protester has even used Google Maps to track the location of government tanks.

Social media hasn't only given Iranians a way to evade censorship and speak out; it has given them a way to mobilize attacks on Ahmadinejad's coalition, attacks that go beyond rallies. Some Iranian twitterers have called for foreign supporters to attack Ahmadinejad's websites using a distributed denial of service attack.

A distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) is an effort to take down a website's servers by querying them repeatedly. Cyberwarriors used webservices like PageReboot which can automatically refresh a website every second. If enough people launch simultaneous cyberattacks, the surge in traffic can take down the website. (As of this writing, many official Iranian government and state-controlled media sites were unavailable). But I'm not convinced DDoS's are the right way to help.

DDoS attacks are not necessarily an expression of popular will, or a check on the powerful, for all that this battle seems to have risen from the netroots. For a DDoS to be effective, many computers need to be accessing the targeted websites simultaneously. Today's offensive in Iran was carried out by hundreds of Internet users (there are over 800 members of one facebook group planning attacks as of this writing).

But there's another way to get the number of users you need to run a DDoS: rent them. You can pay by the hour to access and command a large number of computers by renting time on a botnet. A botnet is a large number of virus-infected computers that are networked together and are commanded by a remote operator (a botherder). Today, large botnets are available to rent by the hour, for spamming, phishing, and, yes, launching DDoS's.

It is logical to expect that cyberattacks, by governments or non-state actors, may become routine in the future. It is important to remember that this is a weapon that can be used by the powerful to enforce a brutal heckler's veto just as easily as large groups of protestors can use it to strike back. We should hesitate to legitimize DDoS attacks just because we agree with the side that is using them, especially when there are better ways to help.

DDoS attacks are focused on closing down sources of information, but, right now, the most important thing is helping Iranian writers publicize what is happening in Iran. Blogger Austin Heap has posted a list of step-by-step instructions on how to set up a proxy server for Iranians to access. A proxy server allows Iranians to slip past government censorship. Instead of connecting to a blocked or downed website, they connect to a proxy, or substitute, network outside of Iran, which is not subject to restrictions. Any computer user can set up a proxy, to let Iranian users piggyback on your unrestricted access to the internet.

Another suggestion from Wired is for all bloggers outside Iran to change the settings on their own blogs to make it appear that the blogger appears to be blogging from Tehran in GMT+3.30 time zone. This makes it harder for Iranian security forces to identify and shut down real Iranian bloggers just by filtering by location.

It's too early to know how this protest will end, but it is clear that the Internet enables Iranian bloggers and twitterers to put pressure on their government and keep a record of human rights abuses, opening the possibility that justice may one day be served. This uprising is a potent reminder of the power of speech and of the press.

Nearly one hundred years ago, H. L. Mencken said, "Freedom of the press belongs to those that own one." Today's fluid, resilient Internet has given the power of the press, of written, public records, to anyone with a connection. Perhaps, today, our rallying cry should be that of John Gilmore, computer scientist, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." We must commit to preserving this free flow of information, which is the greatest defense against tyranny for the Iranians' (and all of us).

 

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