Sunday, December 6, 2009

World wide web not looking so fun now

This new Iranian development is stunning:

The regime has been cracking down hard at home. And now, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows, it is extending that crackdown to Iranians abroad as well.

In recent months, Iran has been conducting a campaign of harassing and intimidating members of its diaspora world-wide -- not just prominent dissidents -- who criticize the regime, according to former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran's elite security force, the Revolutionary Guard, with knowledge of the program.

Part of the effort involves tracking the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity of Iranians around the world, and identifying them at opposition protests abroad, these people say.

Interviews with roughly 90 ordinary Iranians abroad -- college students, housewives, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople -- in New York, London, Dubai, Sweden, Los Angeles and other places indicate that people who criticize Iran's regime online or in public demonstrations are facing threats intended to silence them.

For example:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn't stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.

Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.

"When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke," said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.

First of all, that's just scary. That is 1984 gone global.

It's also interesting, for two reasons. One is the way it actually works. It used to be that if a terrifying totalitarian regime wanted to reach outside its borders, it needed soldiers, spies, or double agents. Maybe satellites. The nice thing is that all of those things cost money--a fair amount of it--and good ones cost a lot of money.

Now, basically any regime with computers and a little know-how has a built-in web (no pun intended) of information and, it seems, even influence around the world. This has never happened on such a non-elite scale before.

Secondly, it's interesting in the context of the continuing process of reframing the idea of nations and territory that's been going on for the past couple of decades. Developments like multi-national corporations, the return of private military companies, and cyclical labor patterns that have people frequently moving between countries have done a lot to muddle the fairly fundamental (if never fully realized) notion of a one-to-one correspondence between state, territory, and nation (i.e. people, ethnic group, what have you).

Let's just say that this development does not make the situation any clearer. A few years ago it was in vogue to predict or announce the impending obsolescence of the nation-state. We were all going to be metropolitan now, or local, or global, or, well, something else.

That has not happened, and it doesn't seem likely. Rather, the nation-state is simply undergoing a process of repurposing and reformation. Where that will lead is hard to say in terms of the nation state; I'm confident that we'll see the sphere of global governance, mostly empty since the end of the Cold War (the U.S. all by itself does not count. It has influence over its allies. The Cold War presented an imperative and a set of incentives that came much closer to in some sense governing the whole world via arbitration by each side) begin to be filled in, whether by some other set of superpowers (unlikely, IMO) or by a true set of global institutions (also unlikely), or by something I haven't thought of (quite likely).

If and when that happens, I'm pretty sure this sort of behavior by any nation-state government will be unacceptable. Hopefully. Yeah.

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