Perhaps looking back on the rise of this particular narrative can shed some light on the path forward, including how to approach its more subtle but persistent variants such as “the Wikileaks Revolution” (Tunisia) and “Revolution 2.0” (Egypt). In Iran’s case, techno-utopianism in international coverage boomed due to foreign journalists being banned, credited Iranian journalists being restricted, and a young, mobile, tech-savvy, and highly educated population being at the ready. Certainly, the Western audience’s recognition of social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as popular, Western, youth-oriented, and benign also played a part. But the “Twitter revolution” also caught on due to a number of narratives that, in the Western consciousness, pre-existed the uprising.
One of them was the idea, cultivated since the early 2000s, of Iranian dissident blogger-journalists being driven to the free spaces of the internet in regionally disproportionate numbers, and experiencing persecution for their online, anti-regime endeavors. The stories of persecuted bloggers like Sina Motallebi and Hossein Derakhshan (still in jail today) come to mind, as does that of Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, the first Iranian blogger to die in prison. In the same period, the Bush administration pushed the Iran Freedom Support Act, which was passed in September, 2006. The serendipitous overlap between the rise of the internet’s role in Iranian civil society and the US regime-change agenda seemed to strengthen both. An additional narrative, purportedly reproduced historically by Iranian diaspora in the West, was one of Iranians (or “Persians”, rather) as intellectually and culturally advanced, similar to Westerners, “civilized,” and proud.
But there was also a deeper story about the internet itself as a vehicle of genuine democratic change that may have tipped the scales from balanced online/offline international solidarity towards over-enthusiasm about internet technologies. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture traces internet narratives from the technology’s beginnings, and shows that the intersection between the internet and visions of utopian societies is as old as the Net itself. Could this utopian genesis narrative be at the root of today’s internet-boosting?
“Tools of liberation”
Turner argues that early perceptions about computers and the internet were shaped less by the engineers and programmers who made them and more by an elite of journalists and hippy ideologues from 1960s and 70s San Francisco who had the access and influence to write about these new technologies. This narrative was intended “to create the cultural conditions under which microcomputers and computer networks could be imagined as tools of liberation.” Given Turner’s account, it is not hard to see how today’s internet conjures up images of a quest for freedom.
This could be the reason why, in the summer of 2009, San Franciscan computer programmer, Austin Heap, was moved to involve himself in the Iranian Green movement without any prior knowledge or interest in Iran. He designed Haystack, a program which encrypts all online activity and hides this encrypted data in what looks like normal traffic. Heap’s inspiration was seeing images from the protests – his only connection to what he saw, the internet. The Tor Project was a program similarly used in solidarity with Iranians. Tor is headed by Andrew Lewman and designed to allow people in Iran to use anonymous proxies to hide their identities and online activity. The attention for such stories boomed and overshadowed the Iranian government’s censorship, government supporters’ hacking of opposition websites, and the government’s use of online amateur footage to identify protesters.
In addition, the hacktivist groups Anonymous and Pirate Bay supported the protesting Iranians by starting the website, Anonymous Iran, providing tools to circumvent censorship by way of navigating with privacy, uploading files through the Iranian firewall, and launching attacks on pro-government websites. The international involvement and dedication of these cyber-activists further entwined utopian internet narratives with the message of the Iranian pro-democratic movement, especially as they coalesced with the Green protesters’ counterparts outside the country.
Do your part to lift the pain of sanctions on Iranian families.
Dear Catherine Ashton:
We, the undersigned, are concerned about the effects the implementation of sanctions are having on average Iranians. We are particularly concerned that items that are not sanctioned, such as medication and humanitarian goods are not reaching the people in Iran.
This is a time of great suffering in the region. We want to ensure that we are not further contributing to the suffering because of the denial of access to a payment channel for humanitarian items. We know the intention of the sanctions is to put pressure on Iran’s ruling elite. We worry that this is not the reality.
The brunt of the suffering falls on women and children and the most vulnerable in society. They suffer the consequences in very real ways. They lose their incomes, their homes, and their access to life-saving medication. Some of this suffering can be alleviated by facilitating the seamless implementation of the existing humanitarian exemptions. These include financial transactions related to medications, basic needs, and other items that are currently not sanctioned.
We ask the European Union to create a payment channel to accept transactions from Iran. This channel should be closely scrutinized. This will allow much needed financial transactions for medications and basic needs to take place.
It is crucial at this time when the people of Iran are desperately trying to make their own voices heard that we show we are listening. They went to the polls in an attempt to show their own government that they wanted reform and better relations with the outside world. We need to show we are listening.
Please help to avert a humanitarian disaster. Allow Iranians access to the international banking system to purchase medications and humanitarian goods.