advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about politics, economics, and more…

On Looking Deeper, Or, Things About Iran You Might Not Know June 24, 2009

It has been an amazing week in Iran, and you are no doubt seeing images that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

For most of us, Iran has been a country about which we know very little…which, obviously, makes it tough to put the limited news we’re getting into a proper context.

The goal of today’s conversation is to give you a bit more of an “insider look” at today’s news; and to do that we’ll describe some of the risks Iranian bloggers face as they go about their business, we’ll meet a blogging Iranian cleric, we’ll address the issue of what tools the Iranians use for Internet censorship and the companies that could potentially be helping it along, and then we’ll examine Internet traffic patterns into and out of Iran.

Finally, a few words about, of all things, how certain computer games might be useful as tools of revolution.

The first task for today…let’s talk about blogging:

It turns out that bloggers in Iran risk running afoul of the Press Law of 1986, which, in addition to requiring the licensing of media outlets, reads in part:

Article 6: The print media are permitted to publish news items except in cases when they violate Islamic principles and codes and public rights as outlined in this chapter…

…5. Encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran within or outside the country…
…7. Insulting Islam and its sanctities, or, offending the Leader of the Revolution and recognized religious authorities (senior Islamic jurisprudents);
8. Publishing libel against officials, institutions, organizations and individuals in the country or insulting legal or real persons who are lawfully respected, even by means of pictures or caricatures; and
9. Committing plagiarism or quoting articles from the deviant press, parties and groups which oppose Islam (inside and outside the country) in such a manner as to propagate such ideas (the limits of such offenses shall be defined by the executive by-law)…

… Article 25: If a person, through the press, expressly and overtly instigates and encourages people to commit crimes against the domestic security or foreign policies of the state, as specified in the public penal code, and should his/her action bear adverse consequences, he/she shall be prosecuted and condemned as an accomplice in that crime. However, if no evidence is found on such consequences he/she shall be subject to a decision of the religious judge according to Islamic penal code.

Article 26: Whoever insults Islam and its sanctities through the press and his/her guilt amounts to apostasy, shall be sentenced as an apostate and should his/her offense fall short of apostasy he/she shall be subject to the Islamic penal code.

Article 27: Should a publication insult the Leader or Council of Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran or senior religious authorities (top Islamic jurisprudents), the license of the publication shall be revoked and its managing director and the writer of the insulting article shall be referred to competent courts for punishment.

(In Iran, the penalty for apostasy is death.)

Those bloggers who are not licensed can still be prosecuted under the Penal Code, as the OpenNet Initiative reports in an excellent article they’ve just posted on the subject.

In 2008 the Iranian parliament passed a law which provides for the death penalty for bloggers who engage in non-permitted activities, a situation faced today by Yaghub Mehrnahad, who publishes the Mehrnahad blog.

(Interestingly, this blog can be reached in Persian, but an attempt to access the same URL with Google Translate returns this message:

“You are not authorized to view this page

The Web server you are attempting to reach has a list of IP addresses that are not allowed to access the Web site, and the IP address of your browsing computer is on this list.”

More about that later.)

There is also the risk of torture: a problem noted by the BBC at least as far back as 2005.

Ironically, Mohammad Ali Abtabi, a cleric and former Vice-President of Iran whom you may have recently seen on “The Daily Show” maintains a blog in which he does criticize Iranian society on a regular basis, including his assessment of the recent election as “a huge swindling”…which has now caused the authorities to place him under arrest.

So how does Iran manage to control Internet access?

What they aren’t doing is employing the simplest method possible: cutting off all access. This is presumably because of the negative impact on the Iranian economy that would be caused by business being unable to do what they need to do online.

There are several methods being employed, including a requirement that all Internet Service Providers in the country connect to the state-owned Data communication Company of Iran (DCI) for international access, that all ISPs put in place “filtering” and monitoring technologies, and that households be blocked from having access to high-speed Internet connections.

As of this writing the fastest Internet connection now available for an Iranian household is 128k, about double the speed of a dial-up connection…and as you might guess, not fast enough to allow Iranians to use such services as YouTube. A 6MB cable Internet connection, not uncommon in the US, would be roughly 50 times faster. Because of this the total capacity of Iran’s international Internet connections are roughly 12GB per second. Normal traffic is about 5GB per second, which, we are told, is about the same as a mid-size American city.

OpenNet reports that after an initial period of reliance upon foreign monitoring software, the government decided to create an “in-house” capability, and as a result there are locally developed software packages designed to allow access to the actual data packets in messages—meaning that authorities can read such things as e-mails and instant messages after they are sent and before they pass through the DCI “gateway”.

There has been a conversation regarding the role of Western equipment suppliers in all of this; and it is alleged that a Nokia/Siemens joint venture (Nokia/Siemens Networks) has sold to the Iranians equipment that is used to monitor the Internet use of Iranian citizens. The company denies this, however.

They also want you to know that the joint venture has been sold to a third party, and that, as their press release tells us: “providing people, wherever they are, with the ability to communicate ultimately benefits societies and brings greater prosperity”.

Another method of blocking access is to deny connections to certain sets of IP addresses, and this is why, presumably, I could not access the translated version of the “Mehrnahad” blog. This method would also allow the Iranians to block access to and from inside the country to sites like the BBC, Google, and Blogspot.

There is a way around “address blocking” which involves setting up “relays” and “bridges” that can be accessed by people in Iran—and this is something you yourself can do that can be of considerable benefit to Iranians trying to reach out to the rest of us.

The Iranian Government is also trying to locate and isolate those with Twitter accounts that are set to the Tehran time zone…and you can help make that process tougher by either setting up a Twitter account and setting the time zone to Tehran, or changing your existing account’s time zone.

The next few minutes are going to get a bit geeky, and for this I apologize in advance.

In order for your computer to use certain services that involve communicating with other computers the operating system utilizes a series of “ports” (this is all in the software, so don’t bother looking at the back of the machine to find them).

Some quick examples: the TCP/IP connection your computer is using to access the Internet is through Port 80 and the FTP service runs on Port 21.

There are two kinds of ports—TCP and UDP—and there is no reason to explain here why or how they differ.

There are thousands of ports, the ports used are usually specific to a particular service, and there are giant lists of assigned ports that everyone can access. A service can (and usually does) use more than one port for two-way communication with a computer, which is why the Federal Emergency Management Agency Information System uses TCP Port 1777 and UDP Port 1777.

The routing data that packets of information display as they travel through the Internet includes the port that the packet is seeking to access…and that data is accessible to all routers…and if you controlled the gateway through which all inbound and outbound Internet traffic was passing through you could block packets that seek to utilize certain ports.

Experts are suggesting that this is exactly what is happening today in Iran, with more than 80% of traffic bound for ports using the Adobe Flash Player being blocked, nearly 75% of the POP Service (e-mail) traffic being blocked, and roughly 70% of traffic bound for ports used by “proxy servers” being intercepted. (Proxy servers, by the way, are the same type of connections we discussed earlier that you can set up at home to help Iranians trying to reach the Internet.)

Voice over IP (VoIP), the Internet “telephone” service, is proving to be a troublesome issue for censors, as it has legitimate business purposes and is difficult to censor without either having someone listening on the other end of the line or installing a monitoring system worthy of the National Security Agency.

Interestingly, with the exception of the few hours immediately following the vote, the amount of Internet blockage, overall, seems to be fairly close to what it was just before the voting. However, the amount of “instability” has been highly variable, suggesting that certain blocks of IP addresses have been temporarily “withdrawn” from the Internet’s address structure, for want of a better term, and then once again made known to that same addressing infrastructure.

It is suggested that this may be because the Iranian Government has been able to institute a sufficient level of monitoring on those address blocks so as to make them comfortable with again allowing the users of those addresses access to the Internet.

In one of the oddest developments I’ve heard so far, there are reports that certain communications protocols used by some games are not being blocked. We will not go into specifics here, but it seems strange indeed that the video game your mother didn’t want you playing all day might actually be a tool for surreptitious communication.

And with all that said, let’s wrap it up for today.

Here’s what we’ve learned: it is indeed hazardous to be a blogger in Iran.

Despite the fact that it can get you tortured or get you the death penalty, there are those who take the risk—including a former Vice-President who now finds himself under arrest.

We can help Iranian citizens by installing software on our own computers that helps them obtain uncensored Internet access, and about 1/3 of that traffic is getting through.

The regime is not attempting to permanently shut down all Internet traffic—and in fact, that would be a cure that might be as bad as the disease.

The Iranian Government, instead, is developing and operating a sophisticated system of Internet blocking, but it is not perfect…and there are odd connections that could be used that most people would never think of as useful for the purpose.

Finally, a Western company is accused of selling equipment to Iran that could be used for Internet monitoring, but the company in question denies that the gear they sold Iran can perform the tasks the accusers say it can.

It is rare indeed to be able to see two revolutions taking place at the same time–but as you’re watching the news from the newest Iranian Revolution…keep an eye on the news of the Internet Revolution as well.

WARNING—Self-promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I was not selected in the first round of voting. There are two more chances to be selected…with an announcement due this week…so even if you’ve done so before, I still have to ask you to stop by the Democracy for America site and click on the “Add your support” link to offer your support for me again. Thanks for your patience, and we now return you to your regular programming.

 

It’s All Over, And Just Beginning, Or, Why The Campaign Never Ends November 4, 2008

It is once again time to play “piano bar” here at the ole’ blog and turn a reader question into a story…and our “request” today comes from our friend <a href=”http://nobodyimportant-jmb.blogspot.com/”>jmb</a&gt; who is lucky enough to be living in Vancouver, British Columbia.

She wonders why American politics is now in permanent campaign mode. She comes from a Canadian tradition of limited campaign periods, and it seems awfully strange to her that we are already thinking about 2010, 2012, and 2016 before 2008 is even decided.

Matter of fact, it seems strange to a lot of us in the US as well.

Why does it happen?
Can it be fixed?
What can we learn from 2008?

Those are the questions we’ll take on today…and with time especially short today, we need to get right to work.

In order to really get at the answers to these questions, we need to consider some of the fundamental differences between the political system in the US and Parliamentary systems, such as the one in place in Canada.

Right off the bat, Canadian Federal elections have not occurred on a regular schedule, as they do in the US (although that is <a href=”http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2007/05/02/fixed-elections.html”>about to change</a>). Beyond that, <a href=”http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/library/prbpubs/bp437-e.htm#candidacy”>Canadian law</a> limits access to airtime for political campaign advertising, including advertising by third parties. Canadian law also creates defined campaign “seasons” during which electioneering can occur.

In the US, all Members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years; Senators, every six years (one-third are elected every two years). The President and State Governors are elected to four-year terms.

As a result, elections will occur at least every two years in the US.

Because the Canadian Prime Minister is not chosen by public vote, and Canadian Senators are appointed, there is only one federally elected position, the Member of Parliament.

The very essence of what we’re campaigning for is much different as well.

In Canada, and other similar countries, the goal of the Liberal Party at election time is to elect a majority of the members of Parliament from their Party (or to become the plurality, and then form a coalition Government), who will then choose a Prime Minister from among their Members. The Prime Minister runs the Executive functions of these Governments.

Every other Party in the country is trying to do the same thing at the same time.

In the US the goal of the Parties is to elect enough Members of Congress to have majorities in both Houses, so as to advance legislation…but they cannot choose who will run the Executive Branch. In some election cycles, the People also have to elect a President—and as the Obama versus Clinton battle demonstrates, the winner of that contest might not be the Party Establishment’s choice.

In the US it is common for the Presidency and the Congress to be controlled by different Parties (as it is today)—and it is also possible for the House to be controlled by one Party, and the Senate another. These situations would not occur in a Parliamentary system like Canada’s.

In some US States (California, Oregon, and Washington are three quick examples), the People may bypass the Legislature and enact <a href=”http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/text/i1000.pdf”>laws</a&gt; upon their own authority through the initiative process—but doing that requires elections, as we have to vote on the various proposals. (Voters in the Canadian Province of British Columbia <a href=”http://www.elections.bc.ca/index.php/referenda-recall-initiative/”>also</a&gt; have access to the initiative process.)

All that having been said, let’s start answering some questions:

<blockquote>Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

–The <a href=”http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.billofrights.html#amendmenti”>First Amendment</a> to the US Constitution</blockquote>

Part of the reason the US has moved into a permanent campaign mode is because the First Amendment absolutely prevents any effort to limit campaign periods.

Political speech, particularly that offered to advance or oppose a candidacy or issue, is the <a href=”http://www.law.duke.edu/journals/dltr/articles/2003dltr0001.html”>freest</a&gt; of speech, and offered the greatest degree of protection under First Amendment doctrine as applied by the United States Supreme Court over the years.

<blockquote>Indeed, the speech in which Mrs. McIntyre engaged–handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint–is the essence of First Amendment expression… No form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection than Mrs. McIntyre’s.

–<em><a href=”http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/93-986.ZO.html”>McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission</a></em>, 514 U.S. 334 (1995)</blockquote>

The Supreme Court has ruled that restricting the amount that may be raised and spent by a campaign is unconstitutional (see <a href=”http://supreme.justia.com/us/424/1/case.html”><em>Buckley v. Valeo</em></a>, 424 U. S. 1 (1976) for more details); this is because spending to advance a candidacy or issue by a campaign is considered protected political speech.

Spending your own money to advance <a href=”http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/Voting/20010401/17/737″>your own</a> candidacy is offered the same protections—but limiting the amount of money that can be contributed by an individual to the campaign of another is permitted on the theory that reducing the corruptive effect of large donations on the political process is a government interest that outweighs the liberty interest of allowing those large donations.

(“Corporate persons” do not have the same First Amendment protections as actual people, and there are what appear to be constitutionally acceptable limits on their political activities.)

This legal theory is controversial in some circles, and you should expect the doctrine to be challenged in the future.

The <a href=”http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/citizens.shtml#how_much”>current</a&gt; donation limits are $2300 per donor per candidate per two-year electoral cycle; and $108,200 in total contributions by one donor to all Federal candidates and PACs per biennium.

<blockquote>Our Constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.

–Will Rogers, in <a href=”http://www.willrogers.com/papers/daily/DT_Vol-1-2-3-4_Complete.pdf”><em>“Daily Telegram 2678”</em></a>, March 6, 1935</blockquote>

It’s time to talk about campaigning for President.

Win or lose, there are a few things that can already be said about the Obama campaign:

Obama came from absolute obscurity in 2004 to where he is today—and he did much of it by “going around” the Democratic Party establishment, which was very much under Hillary’s control.

That meant, in four years, he had to make himself seem like a serious candidate to a public who had never heard of him; which means he had to develop a “Presidential Brand Identity” for himself despite potentially ferocious, potentially Clinton-led, resistance.

In that time he needed to create an entirely independent campaign infrastructure that was able to <a href=”http://www.barackobama.com/2008/01/26/obama_campaign_to_open_five_mo.php”>operate</a&gt; in all 50-odd primaries (every state plus the several Territories and the District of Columbia), he needed to attract influential donors and advisors…and he needed to “make the rounds”–to attend the innumerable “rubber chicken” Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce and County and State Party lunches and dinners that you have to attend in order to shake the hands of the locally important and demonstrate your Presidential <em>“gravitas”</em>.

When thinking about infrastructure and relationship-building, consider that Canada is a nation of roughly 30 million (a population similar to California’s), spread across 13 Provinces and Territories; and the US is a nation of 300 million, with a total of 57 States, Territories, and the Federal District. That means it takes longer to get your face out there in the US if you’re a new national candidate than it would in Canada.

To accomplish all of this took Obama the better part of four years…and in Canada, there’s a permanent Party structure that manages those relationships for the candidates they select to run—and to become Prime Minister, you really only need to persuade your own Party members and Members of Parliament to support you, making things much easier for the candidates seeking that position than it is for US Presidential candidates.

Another issue is getting on all those 50-odd ballots in the first place. A candidate has to physically file in every jurisdiction in which they wish to run—and part of the filing process is the gathering of signatures from residents of all of those locations by the candidate in order to qualify. Again, that takes time.

(For the foreign reader, the Parties cannot do this work because they do not yet know which candidate will be their nominee, and they won’t know that until the primaries actually begin later on in the process.)

Running for Congress, for a new candidate, is a similar process—you need to create your own “power base” without a Party to advance you along the way (unless you’re the incumbent or well connected in the opposition Party’s establishment), you need to find ways to finance a campaign—and to get well enough known to have a chance to win, you likely need to shake a lot of hands and do some favors, which takes time.

Meanwhile, the two Parties are trying to improve their relative positions in each House of Congress, which means even as the polls are closing each Party is thinking about how to advantage itself in the next election, which will never be more than two years away.

<blockquote>America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

–<a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=VHxgGvF9ugAC&dq=Hunter+S+Thompson&pg=PP1&ots=SaZOLtwn0N&source=an&sig=BpBHctvTUWOgEoC-tVRT4i6uOUE&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=10&ct=result”>Dr. Hunter S. Thompson</a></blockquote>

So how can this “condition” be changed?

It probably can’t.

The most likely reform that would pass Constitutional muster would be an arrangement that required broadcasters to offer discounted or free airtime for political purposes—but it should be noted that this could only be mandated because the airwaves are publicly owned. It is unlikely cable operators could be held to the same kind of requirements, unless the contracts they operate under were to be modified from today’s norms.

Limiting access to that airtime would be much more problematic (airtime is akin to a modern “Speaker’s Corner” for Constitutional purposes), and I would not expect to see that sort of reform anytime soon.

Limiting the period of campaigning will also be exceptionally unlikely to pass Constitutional muster…and limiting campaign speech, in any other manner, will be equally tough.

Some of the same problems, ironically, might be coming to Canada. There are recommendations to move to “<a href=”http://www.elections.ca/eca/eim/article_search/article.asp?id=129&lang=e&textonly=false”>Mixed Proportional Representation</a>”, which is a system where some Parliamentary candidates run “to the public” while others are selected by each Party to run on a “Party Slate”, if you will. The goal is to award seats more or less proportionately with the actual ballots cast (if your party gets 20% of the vote, for example, you should end up with roughly 20% of the seats).

We assume the “public” candidates will have to expand their “non-campaign” political activities to create interest in that Party among the larger voting public…this, because the “public” candidates are now essentially “running for two”. You might see a lot of “ribbon-cutting” appearances (“I’m proud to appear with the Mayor at the opening of this lovely new park…”) and seminars and “discussion groups” to raise public awareness and create more political “buzz”…without, of course, any actual “campaigning” taking place.

We also suspect putting elections on a schedule will increase these tendencies.

And with all that said, we have arrived at our lessons for the day: the “eternal campaign” is probably here to stay, there are Constitutional reasons that Canadian-style restrictions cannot be applied to US elections…the goals of Parties and candidates in the US and Canada are fundamentally different…and because the nominating process in the US allows anyone to win the nomination of a Party—sometimes against that party’s will—the “eternal campaign” sometimes creates a President Clinton, who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

And sometimes…a President Bush.

And what we get today…well, I guess we just wait and see…