Wednesday, July 15, 2009
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Iran and the Technological Revolution
By TED RUHIG
Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) — this group of emerging powers have gained international clout over the past decade as their economies have grown faster than those of other developed countries, including the U.S.
BRIC leaders held their first summit meeting in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on June 16th to discuss the global financial crisis and reforms to the world’s financial and trade institutions. They called for sweeping changes to the United Nations, which would provide a bigger role to Brazil and India, along with a “stable and predictable” currency system.
BRIC accounted for about 22 percent of the world’s economy in 2008, up from 16 percent a decade earlier. While the four countries already produce nearly 15 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and hold about 40 percent of the gold and hard currency reserves, they are still not a unified bloc. The formation of BRIC is intended to establish that right and make a statement to existing superpower blocs that their era of global dominance might soon be coming to an end.
For quite awhile, many have subscribed to the theory that countries can only become leaders through the diffusion of modern information technology and that the diffusion of modern information technology helps to undermine the legitimacy of autocracy as a form of government. This conclusion is not necessarily true, however.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the BRIC members: China, for example. Over the past few years, Chinese leaders have proven to be much more resourceful about managing information than many people assumed would ever be possible. The key factor is that the Chinese market is so enormous that China can impose its own rules, knowing that many companies will want to play along.
Recently, China issued a sweeping directive requiring that all personal computers sold in the country include sophisticated software that can filter out pornography and other “unhealthy information” from the Internet. Known as Green Dam-Youth Escort, the software was to be preinstalled on all personal computers sold in China by July 1.
The government has said it will pay for the software for at least one year as part of its campaign against “unhealthy and vulgar” material on the Internet. Human rights advocates and the ranks of China’s Internet users have been especially critical, saying that Green Dam is really a thinly-concealed attempt by the government to expand censorship.
Software engineers who have examined Green Dam in recent days say that it is designed to do more than just filter out adult content. Deep inside the program, they say, are data files with the sorts of search terms and key words the authorities use to block certain topics, including Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, and the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Still, companies will fall all over one another in an effort to comply with the new law in order to cater to the Chinese market, which is very large and growing. Then, once the technology is in place, other autocracies can attempt to piggyback on work that’s been done in and for China.
Look at what’s happening in Iran right now. Chinese and Russian leaders of BRIC recently welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as he made his first foreign trip since his disputed recent re-election. Ahmadinejad arrived a day late after mass protests against his disputed victory in Tehran. But BRIC leaders congratulated Ahmadinejad on his victory.
Back home in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s embattled government appeared to be trying to limit Internet access and communications. The crackdown on communications began on election day, when text-messaging services were shut down in what opposition supporters said was an attempt to block one of their most important organizing tools.
Over the weekend, cell phone transmissions and access to Facebook, along with some other websites, were also blocked.
But new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions.
The New York Times described the various technological strategies in use by Iranians to evade the crackdown in a recent article. Most visibly, they are coordinating their protests on Twitter, the Internet messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.
Labeling such seemingly spontaneous anti-government demonstrations as a “Twitter Revolution” has already become something of a cliché. That title was given to protests in Moldova in April.
The Times article reports that Global Internet Freedom Consortium, an Internet proxy service with ties to the banned Chinese spiritual movement, Falun Gong, offers downloadable software to help evade censorship. It said its traffic from Iran had tripled in the last week.
A comment by an engineer with the Consortium observed: “Two hundred years ago, there was the Underground Railroad that helped to free slaves in America. Today there is an Underground Railroad in cyberspace.”
Internet censorship is doomed to failure. Western companies may make a show of cooperating with the authorities in China and other anti-democratic governments, but they are leaving in place plenty of loopholes for dissidents to exploit. The citizens of Iran are showing the way it can be done.
©2009, Capital News Service