A review of the "Netwar" going on over the Iran protests, from BBC Monitoring.
Iranian elections spark "netwar"
Media feature by BBC Monitoring on 17 June
Online supporters of the defeated presidential Iranian candidate Mir-Hoseyn Musavi have been engaging in a carefully orchestrated "netwar" against pro-government websites as the Tehran authorities tighten their grip on both the mass media and the internet.
Iranians have been actively blogging and posting to Facebook and YouTube images and videos of protests both for and against the re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinezhad for another four-year term.
Activists using Twitter accounts have been urging supporters to use simple hacking tools to flood pro-government websites and stop them from loading.
Note to hackers
Using hacking tools such as BWraep, users can target websites and overload them with requests for images and web pages, which exhausts bandwidth capacity and results in a distributed denial of service (DDoS) error message.
Some government ministry websites, including leader.ir, Ahmadinezhad.ir, and iribnews.ir, were reported to have been brought down using DDoS attacks.
Observations of Twitter streams indicate that these attacks have been encouraged throughout internet social networking communities partly to show frustration of Iranians at the contested re-election of President Ahmadinezhad, which some alleged was fraudulent, from a sense of excitement and "getting caught up in the flow" of things, and partly also in retaliation to the brief closures of some pro-reformist websites on 15 June.
Esko Reinikainen, writing in the UK-based Networked Culture website, has provided activists with a guide on how to "participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through Twitter".
In the guide, Reinikainen recommended setting users' Twitter accounts to the Tehran location and time zone in order to protect the "real bloggers".
"If we all become 'Iranians'", he suggested, it becomes much harder for "security forces that are hunting for bloggers" to find them.
"These bloggers are in real danger," he wrote, "people are dying there... don't blow their cover".
However, some sections of the web community have cautioned against retaliatory attacks.
"I can confirm that we have been tracking numerous calls to launch DDoS attacks... we have been urging people to resist these calls," Editor of the Information Warfare Monitor website and research fellow at Toronto university-based Citizen Lab, Greg Walton, told the BBC.
Open Society Institute fellow Evgeny Morozov, in a posting on the Foreign Policy blog dated 15 June, echoed Walton's message and warned against participating in DDoS attacks, "they are only likely to slow down the internet in Iran for everyone, not just Ahmadinezhad's supporters," he said
"Netwar" and defiance
The OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a joint venture of the universities of Harvard, Toronto, Oxford and Cambridge, which monitors and reports on internet surveillance practices worldwide, and especially government-run filtering programmes, has noted that since 2000 Iran has put in place "one of the most extensive technical filtering systems in the world".
Yet despite the restrictions, Iran has vibrant social media communities that reach far outside of the country.
Using novel ways to get around the obstacles, Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and Twittering - despite blocks on specific websites - links to videos of protests, stills and personal accounts that the world's media has used.
Walton said that Citizen Lab, an academic partner of ONI at Toronto university, have been promoting their web-proxy, Psiphon, through Twitter so Iranians affected by the blocks can get access to banned content "without even signing up for an account".
However, some experts believe that rather than a high-intensity information age conflict, or cyberwar, the current phenomenon of coordination of DDoS attacks can be described as a relatively low-intensity campaign.
"I would characterize this phenomenon as a 'netwar' as opposed to 'cyberwar'," Walton told the BBC.
Netwar describes an emergent form of low-intensity conflict, crime and activism waged by social networked actors, he added.
Walton explained that "typical netwar actors might include transnational terrorists, criminal organizations, activist groups, and social movements that employ decentralized, flexible network structures."
UK-based programmer Robert Synott, writing in myblog.rsynott.com, voiced his concern for those encouraging DDoS attacks.
"This sounds like a very nice form of peaceful protest. It is anything but," he said, warning that DDoS attacks may interrupt internet access from Iran to the outside world, and therefore those in charge may simply "pull the plug in order to protect the rest of the network".
In his guide, Reinikainen warned against participating in DDoS attacks, "if you don't know what you are doing, stay out of this game."
Contrasting with the enhanced level of media freedom just prior to the elections, the Iran authorities imposed unprecedented restrictions on the pro-reformist media just after the results were announced.
From 12-15 June, newspapers Aftab-e Yazd, Kalemeh-ye Sabz and E'temad-e Melli published blank sections in pages where articles and speeches of Ahmadinezhad's rivals were censored.
Websites carrying news, Ayandenews, Ghalamnews, Kalemehnews, Aftabnews and Jomhoriyat were also inaccessible, although with the exception of Jomhoriyat, all the websites were accessed on 16 June.
Aftab-e Yazd newspaper also reported on 12 June that the mobile phone text messaging (SMS) network in Iran was briefly shut down. According to ONI, mobile phone services were restored on 14 June, but SMS continues to be blocked.
Meanwhile, international television networks have reported interference with their reports on the election violence in Iran, "with a RTVE Spanish television journalist claiming her team had been ordered expelled," AFP news agency reported on 15 June.
An Iranian journalist writing from Tehran, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, said that people were having difficulty getting information in and out of Iran. Writing in the Index for Censorship website on 16 June he said that "most WiFi and ADSL connections have been barred... I have travelled 40 minutes out of Tehran in order to access the slowest of connections."
Professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School said that Twitter is strong enough to survive censorship as posts can originate from different outlets. Indeed, despite the restrictions, tweets keep streaming into the aggregators.
As opposition rallies continue, hinting at further clashes, and in the light of restrictions on the mass media, Twitter has emerged as a major source of information on what is happening on the ground.
However, Reinikainen has urged people not to get carried away.
"Please remember that this is about the future of the Iranian people, while it might be exciting to get caught up in the flow of participating... do not lose sight of what this is really about," he pointed out in his guide.
Source: BBC Monitoring research 17 Jun 09