Voices of Digital Communities

"Hacktivists" and the Rising Tide of Democracy in Iran

Listen to the podcast "The core lesson of these events is that the Iranian regime is fragile at the core. Like all autocratic regimes, it ...

by / June 22, 2009
Listen to the podcast

"The core lesson of these events is that the Iranian regime is fragile at the core. Like all autocratic regimes, it has become rigid, paranoid, insular, insecure, impulsive, clumsy and illegitimate. The people running the regime know it, which is why the Revolutionary Guard is seeking to consolidate power into a small, rigid, insulated circle. The Iranians on the streets know it. The world knows it."

Those words were written by New York Times columnist David Brooks in a June 19 editorial.  For me, Brooks' words immediately resonated with another bit of news from a June 17 news story on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Rising Tide of Democracy in Iran.jpg That story by Laura Siddell reported on how Iranians protesting the recent presidential vote are using Web tools including Facebook and Twitter to send the story of their protests, and the government's reaction, around the world.  It is a game of cat-and-mouse.  Iran links to the Internet through a central, controlled gateway, which theoretically gives the government the power to block Web sites and filter traffic.  But with the help of "hacktivists" from around the world, protesters have found ingenious ways around the best efforts of censors.

Siddell interviewed a software engineer in Oklahoma who turned his computer into a proxy server for Iranians seeking to reach blocked sites.  They go to the proxy, which offers them unrestricted access to the Web.  This worked until the Iranian authorities caught on and blocked his computer's Internet address.  But he is only one of many hactivitists working together, and a colleague soon brought up another proxy server.  It will work until the authorities discover it and block its address.  And on it goes.  News of the proxy addresses passes by word of mouth among the computer literate in Iran.  So do the addresses of the growing number of sites that can broadcast Twitter "tweets" in addition to Twitter.com.    

The software engineer, Anthony Papillon, said, "The ordinary everyday person, when he sees this work, is going to be a much bigger threat to oppressive governments, and I think we're going to start seeing a lot more citizen activism and a lot of change very quickly."   

I like his optimism, but I don't expect broadband to beat bullets any time soon.  What's going on in Iran, however, dramatizes a central truth about the Broadband Economy we live in.  Governments are powerful, but knowledge is a mighty power as well, and the broadband Web has multiplied that power a thousand-fold.   

I think there's a lesson for community leaders, too.  I am sure your community contains people like Iran's Web-savvy protesters.  They are already using the tools of the broadband Web - from social networks to mash-ups to digital mapping - in ways that could benefit the whole community.  On the other hand, they may be using the same tools to spread misinformation, to sow doubt and promote fear and hate.  Which is it?  Or is it both?  If you don't know - if you are ignoring your community's "online life" - you are not only missing out on a home-grown resource, you may be storing up trouble for the future as well.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.