Selling Democracy by the Byte

A blog post by Renesys Corporation experts, who provide network data collection and analysis services, suggests that access to all but one of Iran’s five major international data connections has been severely degraded. Some have speculated that this is because the Government of Iran, which controls most national telecommunications systems, has imposed a strict regime of Internet filtering on its population.

Notwithstanding these events, activists organised their protest efforts through online messaging sites such as Twitter, which had apparently been overlooked by censors. One message implored activists to climb to the rooftops and give voice to their protest by shouting ‘Allah’u akhbar’ (God is great). By 4:00 a.m. local time on June 13th, the noise of the rooftop protest was deafening. The outcry has only increased since then. Significantly, the same tactic was used at the outset of the 1979 revolution that ousted the US-supported Shah of Iran and ultimately led to the rise to power of the current theocratic regime.

This riveting spectacle provides us with an object lesson in the effects of communications networks on democracy and social movements.

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. Updated and edited slightly from the original print version.]

Thirty years after the Revolution, the June 12th Iranian presidential elections seem to have catalysed a transformational moment in the nation’s history. One Western commentator writes:

The widespread, sustained, peaceful and courageous demonstrations by Iranians this week has been an astonishing and inspiring sight. In a way this feels like the anti-9/11.

Analysts have suggested that the rapid rise in popularity of moderate candidate Mir-Hosain Mousavi caught the theocratic regime’s leaders flat-footed. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute and long-time commentator on Middle-East affairs, writes:

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. Mousavi’s spokesman abroad, filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalbaf, alleges that the ministry even contacted Mousavi’s camp and said it would begin preparing the population for this victory.

The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

His narrative is, he admits, largely speculative.

The result, witnessed through countless independent blog posts, photos and videos, has been massive, occasionally violent protest in the streets of the capital Tehran and, according to reports, in Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz and Rasht as well.

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