First I was thinking of offering my readers an apology for overloading this blog with Haystack-related observations. Then I changed my mind and decided that I should make no such apologies whatsoever: Haystack is the Internet's equivalent of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. It is the epitome of everything that is wrong with Washington's push to promote Internet Freedom without thinking through the consequences and risks involved; thus, the more we learn about the Haystack Affair while it's still fresh in everyone's memory, the better. (On that note, all readers of my blog should check this excellent new essay by my good friend Sami ben Gharbia, who discusses what the Internet Freedom Crusade means for digital activists in the Middle East – I'm still digesting many of the good points he makes).
Since so many of good discussions about Haystack happen on Stanford's Liberation Technology mailing list and thus may not reach the wide audience, I take it upon myself to periodically report on some of the news/revelations reported there on this blog.
The most interesting Haystack-related development on the list in the last few days was that we heard from Mehdi Yahyanejad, who disclosed that he had been contacted by one of the CRC's former advisory members and asked to test Haystack a few weeks before I started blogging about them. (I spoke to Mehdi several times during my investigation into Haystack and knew him from before.)
Here is the short version of Mehdi's argument as I understand it:
First, Mehdi had known that Haystack didn't have the goods much earlier than the rest of us and had evidence to prove it
Second, Mehdi thinks that the use of circumvention tools – even if the latter are insecure – presents no major risks to users in Iran and that the use of Haystack, despite its design flaws, wouldn't be seen as different from the use Tor or Freegate. (According to Mehdi, the use of circumvention tool is not illegal in Iran and is widely tolerated by the authorities.) Some of these tools are better than others - and Haystack happened to be somewhere on the lower end of the range.
Third, unlike me and Jake Appelbaum, Mehdi chose not to take his concerns public for fear that a scandal may ensue, thus jeopardizing future funding/support of circumvention in general. Here is a telling quote from one of his messages to the group:
...I know that circumvention tool projects, commercial or non-profit, are by in large dependent on the government funding. The government funding is highly policy driven. If Iran's nuclear issue is on the top of the news, this translates to various sorts of "democracy funds" and some of those funds end up in the hand of circumvention community. There is pretty much no other easy way of funding these projects for their service to countries like Iran.
When I was following Evgeny Morozov's blog posts, once he changed the narrative of "Austin Heap misled people" to "Haystack puts people at risk", I exactly knew where he was going with this. The first narrative would have been enough to take down Austin Heap but not necessarily Haystack as an organization. Evgeny wanted to bring down Haystack in a way that he could take the battle to the next step: going after the State Department and other potential government players (his latest article in Slate confirms my suspicion). I believe this can be very damaging and would appeal to Evgeny to consider all the intended or unintended consequences before moving further with this.
Going after the US government can scare away all sort government players from touching circumvention tools projects and would damage the level of funding for all circumvention tools. Of course, people who created Haystack, particularly Austin Heap, and the hype around it are primarily responsible for what has happened but I care less about them or for that matter who gets the blame. I care about what the damage would be to the fundings for circumvention tools projects.
I think Mehdi's is a very important argument that most organizations and actors in the freedom of expression/Internet freedom communities need to grapple with,
The debate that Mehdi has broached does risk pushing us towards engaging in a bit of Iran-inspired Kremlinology – e.g. statements like “I can predict the Iranian government's reaction to Haystack better than you ever can!” are probably inevitable – but I think it's a price worth paying for having such a debate.
So, assuming that Haystack did have major security risks – a fact that no one seems to dispute anymore – were Iranian testers at risk or not? In other words, even if the government could track down Haystack's testers – why should anyone worry, given that they don't have a long history of arresting users of such tools? Were concerns about Haystack overblown?
Here is my best attempt to elucidate four main arguments as to why Haystack's Iranian testers were at risk:
Number 1. Austin Heap made more claims about Haystack's awesome capabilities than all other circumvention tools put together, presenting Haystack as something genuinely new and dangerous. Were one to treat all those statements seriously, it would appear that Haystack is something that the Superman and Batman produced in their garage in their spare time and thus needs be watched very closely. On top of this, Haystack never released its code, making it impossible for the Iranian government – or anyone else – to verify how well Austin's claims matched the reality.
Given the well-known tendency of the Iranian government to see conspiracy theories even in basic laws of physics, I don't think it was so unreasonable for us to assume that they would treat Austin's claims much more seriously than they deserved. Given everything the government did since June 2009 – including crackdowns on bloggers, arrests and intimidation of people working on proxies, and so forth – I don't think we made the wrong call by assuming the government's reaction to Haystack would be harsh. And that Austin marketed Haystack as a tool for high-value dissidents put its testers at risk regardless of whether they were dissidents. I think it only makes things worse.
Number 2. Whatever the original intentions of its founders, Haystack was presented/interpreted as an ideological project rather than just yet another censorship-circumvention tool. Austin did like to highlight the fact that the tool got a US government license and even some fast-tracking from the State Department and in many of his interviews – most notably in the now infamous 20-minute video interview with Aleks Krotoski of the Guardian – he almost seems to imply that it was instrumental during the June 2009 protests. (There is also an implied association with the Neda video there as well – note the bit about citizen journalists using Haystack: “"[Haystack] gave [Iranians] a layer of protection that allowed a random person to be a citizen journalist without the risk of persecution, jail, torture, you know, whatever happens next.").
My research into the government's response to the claims of a “Twitter Revolution” in Iran convinced me that any remote associations with facilitating it could be extremely damaging to one's safety. In Haystack's case Austin was willingly jumping on the Twitter Revolution bandwagon, trying to present Haystack as a tool that made it possible. (That he had a well-publicized gig running proxies for Iran before Haystack – anyone remembers ProxyHeap, that other unique brand from the Heap Marketing Labs? - certainly did not help to dispel the myths).
I am sure that if we conduct a global poll asking people: “Name one anti-censorship technology that was crucial to the Green Movement in 2009” - Haystack would come on top, if only because it got so much free publicity for doing so little. (BBC's The Virtual Revolution documentary, HBO's For Neda documentary, all the media mentions...) I know that this is not what the logs of the Green Movement's web-sites would say – but the Guardian et al never bothered to see those logs – and based on my own experience in the former Soviet Union, paranoid authoritarian governments tend to place much more faith in the professionalism of the Western media than anyone in the West. “If the Guardian said Haystack mattered in Iran, how could it be otherwise? In fact, Haystack probably mattered even more and the government-controlled Guardian is just covering it all up” - this is the kind of government logic I'm very familiar with.
Number 3: Censorship Research Center, the entity behind Haystack, had a board of advisers that can hardly be classified as dear friends of the Iranian regime. Karim Sadjadpour and Abbas Milani are both well-known to the Iranian authorities and it would be silly to believe that their involvement with Haystack didn't help to confirm the government's fears that Haystack was more than just a circumvention tool. In fact, their involvement did make it seem that Haystack was part of some foreign ploy to subvert the regime by means of the Internet. The quote below from a May 2010 article in a state-controlled Iranian newspaper does build its anti-Haystack argument based on the involvement by Milani and Sadjadpour:
It is interesting to note that two Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic in America are assisting the Censorship Research Centre in programming the software. Abbas Milani and Karim Sajjadpur, advisers of Austin Hype [as published], have offered their knowledge to design this anti-Iranian software to the American government. In addition to the Iranian assistants, the Censorship Research Centre has also established connection with some anti-state elements and the so-called Green Movement inside.
Gary Sick – the third member of the advisory board – is also hardly a neutral figure when it comes to Iran. Not only did he do multiple stints on the US National Security Council and write October Surprise, but he also runs Gulf/2000 Project, an academic mailing list that the Iranian government clearly sees as subversive and revolutionary. In fact, one of the ludicrous accusations made against Kian Tajbakhsh during his 2009 trial was that his membership in Gary Sick's ACADEMIC mailing list – which is run out of that traditional hotbed of revolutionary activity, Columbia University – was enough to prove his connections to the CIA.
Maybe it's just me but putting Gary Sick on Haystack's board and TWEETING ABOUT IT while a bunch of Iranians were supposed to be testing this extremely insecure and incomplete piece of software in Iran seems extremely ill-thought. Nothing against Gary Sick– he's a great scholar – but we should also be fair: tools like Tor have successfully avoided the kind of politicization that Haystack deliberately created around itself.
Are mailing lists illegal in Iran? I doubt it – and yet Kian has been locked up nevertheless. Thus, Mehdi's argument that circumvention tools are legal in Iran fails to convince me; some are clearly more legal than others. And as much as I'd like to believe in the ultimate perfection of Iran's legal system, I somehow can't, especially given the developments of the last 15 months. While circumvention tools may be legal, espionage for the US clearly isn't – and I think that this is the charge that Haystack's testers were (are?) most likely to face. It's extremely sad but everything Austin did/said since June 2009 made Haystack testers appear much more like American spies rather than clueless testers of circumvention software and the composition of CRC's advisory board helped to legitimize Austin's outrageous “we'll take this regime down!” claims.
Haystack is actually a perfect case-study of how one could start with what seems like a purely technological project that has noble objectives and end up with an extremely politicized and mostly socially constructed phenomenon that presents far more danger as an ideology than as a piece of code.
At the risk of dragging this discussion into the darkest theoretical alleys in the philosophy of technology and science and technology studies, let me just say that the main problem with Haystack was not how it was designed but how it was socially constructed and subsequently interprepted, not least by the Iranian government.
Here one needs to look at Haystack's position in the "let's liberate Iran!" and "let's liberate the world through technology!" discourses and how that position may compromise its effectivenss as a censorship-circumvention tool. As such, one needs to go beyond the discussion of how secure or insecure Haystack's protocols are - and we know conclusively that much of Haystack's prototype design was, in fact, insecure - and look at the broader socio-political context in which Haystack was supposed to be used. (Tricia Wang offers some more Haystack-related thoughts along these lines on her blog. I'd be curious to see more philosophers of technology and scholars working in STS take on the Haystack issue but the odds of that happening in the near future, well, are probably nil - not until 2015, I guess.
Number 4: What has been completely ignored in the discussions about Haystack's security until now is that it's their on-the-ground distribution method – at least as it applied to one group of their testers – was as unsafe as its design. I'm curious as to why almost nobody has asked how Haystack was actually distributed to the Iranian testers: it certainly didn't drop from the sky in those 976 USB sticks that Austin Heap collected from the trusting inhabitants of the Interwebs.
So let me shed some light on this here, for in my investigation I found how at least one group of testers got access to it. Here is how it worked. Together with their intermediary based outside of Iran, the Haystack team had set up a Gmail account and created a draft message there, where they stored instructions/executable files for download by others. The log-in details were then distributed to the testers – and eventually reached me last week. Even though I personally did not log into that account as it would probably have been illegal, a person authorized to use the Gmail account confirmed that the password still worked and sent me the screenshots.
There are many reasons why I think it was a bad idea to distribute Haystack that way – but the main one is that Gmail allows anyone with access to the inbox to track the IP addresses from which the account has been accessed in the past. That very Gmail account was accessed by NUMEROUS testers and I'm 100% sure that the Haystack team doesn't even know all of them, in part because they lost control over the distribution.
Even though the feature was turned off when my source accessed it last week, I believe it's impossible to say conclusively if it always stayed that way (based on some internal correspondence between Austin and the testers, I've come to believe that this feature was on at least once.) Obviously, if there were even one compromised individual inside Haystack's testing network, that person would be able to track down the IP addresses of everyone who has ever logged into that inbox – ironically, with Google's help. Even assuming that this did not happen, it seems obvious that there are many better ways to distribute Haystack while protecting the security of other testers. My point here is that if we really want to start comparing Haystack to Tor or any other tools, we need to look beyond architecture and start looking at many other parts of the chain – and those parts so far have not been made transparent by Haystack...
Given all this, I don't think that Jake and I made the wrong call in publicizing our concerns about the risks that using Haystack posed to the testers. I'm much more perturbed by the fact that Mehdi had a chance to test Haystack a few weeks before us, had deep reservations about it, and chose not to go public with them – as it seems because of some macro-level concerns about the shifts in the US government's approach to funding circumvention that the Haystack scandal may trigger.
Frankly, this makes me even more concerned about the perverse incentives and disincentives that the US government's push towards promoting Internet Freedom at all costs creates. I understand that Mehdi had a conflicting set of moral concerns – exposing Haystack for the fraud that it was on the one hand and not harming the funding prospects for such tools in general on the other hand. However, given the four arguments above, I think that conflict was not so hard to resolve: he should have gone public about his concerns with Haystack and – maybe – even send a copy to independent reviewers as soon as he began having “serious concerns” about Haystack.
Up until he sent several long messages to the Stanord mailing list, I was under the impression that Mehdi simply didn't grasp the fact that Haystack was insecure – which is what he himself told me on the phone when I interviewed him. In his subsequent correspondence with the list, however, Mehdi clearly states that he DID know that Haystack had major problems with security and even informed Austin and Daniel about them...
To say that I'm confused at this point would be an understatement. Essentially we are asked to believe that Mehdi – who knows the Iranian political context far better than Jake or me (and has a PhD from MIT – okay, I know it's in physics but still) – did not see how Haystack and everything related to it– its advisory board, Heap's claims, crackdown on proxies and everything connected to the mostly imaginary “Twitter Revolution” – might be perceived/interpreted by the Iranian authorities... Am I the only one who finds this hard to believe?
So what are the odds that Haystack testers will be pigeonholed into “enemies of the state/American agents” category rather than “circumvention geeks” category where Mehdi thinks they clearly reside? Everything I've seen/read about Iran in the last 15 months has convinced me that the odds that the former interpretation would become dominant are considerably higher – especially given the media image that Austin managed to build around Haystack. (E.g. Heap's meeting with John McCain mentioned in the Newsweek piece – I'm just curious if McCain sang “Bomb, bomb Iran” at that meeting? Sorry for the snark: but publicizing Heap's meetings with the likes of McCain is just another way to get Haystack testers in trouble...).
I'd very very much like to be wrong on this one and hope that both me and Jake are very poor students of Kremlinology as well as its application to the Iranian context...So far, unfortunately, I haven't seen many arguments that would convince me that we somehow overstated the risks...
P.S. This is a slightly edited version of my post to the Liberation Technology mailing list. And for the record, Mehdi is correct to identify a shift in this blog's narrative - but it happened naturally, as we discovered holes in Haystack's design.
There seems to be no end to the Haystack Affair. Who knew that this whole "Internet freedom" business was so ugly? Perhaps, it comes with the location: there must be a reason why Washington beats any other city in the world in terms of how many/how often its residents search for that very term on Google.
I'm glad that The Economist picked it up, along with many others. I'm still waiting for The Guardian to do something about their akward award to Austin Heap. (That award is deeply symbolic of what happens to good editorial judgement when newspapers are forced to run conferences and make money on things that their marketing departments don't know how to vet.)
Now that we know so much about technology behind Haystack, I think the public attention should focus to discussing the instituational/structural environment that made Haystack possible. I definitely think that the blame extends far beyond Austin Heap; he's the product of the current "digital-innovation-at-all-costs" environment inside the State Department. Unfortunately, I don't think that Haystack is a unique case; had Austin been speaking only in half his voice, Haystack would have been able to survive for probably much longer.
To broach thet discussion about the enabling environment, today I did a piece for Slate, where I recouped some of the key developments but also tried to reflect on the role that the US government - willingly or unwillingly - played in this mess. Since we had to make a lot of cuts to my original essay - I guess Slate didn't want yet another 6,000-word Haystack piece by yours truly! - I'll post the full version of one particular segment from the pre-edited version of my piece here. I think it does add some nuance to my argument - in no way was I trying to imply that we need MORE sanctions imposed on Iran, as some of the comments posted in response to my Slate piece seem to suggest.
I was actually arguing quite the opposite: that the sanctions - along with many other existing hurdles in US foreign policy - can easily distort the original noble intentions of the Internet Freedom Crusade. (And yes, if you think there are too many brands here - Haystack Affair, Internet Freedom Crusade, etc - I've decided it's unfair that the State Department gets to use all of those fancy brands - "21st Century Statecraft", "connection technologies", "Internet Freedom" - and I have to stick with boring and precise terms that actually mean something. So as of today, I'll be branding everything that moves!). So below is a small excerpt from my original essay - the bit that deals with the meaning of sanctions.
The Haystack Affair has helped to highlight that if the American diplomats are really serious about defending Internet freedom, they should begin by solving problems in their own backyard. The broader public debate here should go beyond the subject of government incompetence – of which there seems to be little doubt – and focus on the utility of requiring such licenses.
Why should the US government require a license to export an anti-censorship technology to Iran but not, say, China? What exactly is the fear here? That the progressive elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would all become active Haystack users and start browsing the banned web-sites of Human Rights Watch? But isn't it a good thing? Why didn't the US government explicitly add circumvention-technologies to the list of other online services – like Web browsers and instant messaging software – that were finally granted exemptions from seeking such licenses when the sanctions were amended in March 2010?
Most likely, we'll never know. Anything related to Iranian sanctions is deliberately clouded in such secrecy and ambiguity as to guarantee the US government maximum maneuver space should they seek to change their mind on an issue. Such strategy – “flexibility through ambiguity” - may sometimes be quite useful, but as the Haystack Affair has revealed, it can also backfire quite easily. Haystack's founders may not have boasted of having the US State Department “fast-track” their application to Newsweek– a claim that a State Department official denied to me – if there were at least a modicum of transparency surrounding the government's deliberation over Haystack's license application.
It certainly doesn't help that OFAC – the entity that is ultimately responsible for issuing such licenses – is exempt from some crucial Freedom of Information Act regulations and is not obliged to release any information about individual cases it reviews. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of Haystack anywhere on OFAC's web-site. It's such ambiguity that has allowed Austin Heap to make overstated claims that the media didn't know how to verify or challenge; the government has also not shown much desire to set the record straight, even though they could have easily challenged Heap's claims to the media. Why didn't they? Perhaps, because being seen to do something about Iran can't possibly hurt them. All in all, it looks like sanctions oversight is one critical area where Obama's call for more transparency is not likely to get heeded any time soon.
But the licensing process does more than just bestow additional legitimacy on projects like Haystack; it can also give an unfair first-mover advantage to the most aggressive and legally-savvy of them. Haystack's press-release with regards to their OFAC license put all the right accents in all the right places: “Haystack is the first anti-censorship tool developed specifically for Iran and built to target the methods that Iran uses to filter the Internet. The CRC is the only organization licensed to export such software to Iran.”
CRC, being the first entity to obtain an export license from the government rightly saw it as a strategic asset. After all, if everyone in Washington wanted to fund Internet freedom in Iran and Haystack was the only entity with an export license, it was obvious that they had one killer advantage over other organizations: as far as the US law was concerned, Haystack was the only such tool that could be distributed in Iran legally.
It doesn't matter that there were other more effective tools or that Haystack was a raw piece of code that may never leave its beta status. Austin Heap had the license – and others didn't. It was clear which way the funding wind would be blowing – especially after a tacit endorsement of Haystack by Hillary Clinton. However ambiguously worded that endorsement was, it seemed to work in Haystack's favor.
Had Haystack not collapsed, it is easy to predict what would have happened in the next few months: the project would have locked in a major chunk of the early Iran-related “Internet Freedom” funds, stealing the spotlight from other tools and establishing very tight connections with the donor community. And had the right-thinking people at the US State Department refused to fund Haystack on its weak technological merits, they would soon have been attacked by the media and the Senators - as they always are, for example, whenever they refuse to fund projects affiliated with the Falun Gong movement. (But even the State Department had to capitulate to such pressure in May 2010, granting $1.5 million to one such Falun Gong effort.)
Herein lies a lesson for aspiring digital revolutionaries looking to tap into the Internet Freedom funding bonanza: hire good lawyers before you hire good coders! One of Haystack's numerous “innovations” in this space was hiring a Berkeley-educated and Washington-based lawyer as its managing director. Whatever their sins, the Haystack gang presciently foresaw that, given how deeply the American foreign policy is mired in government bureaucracy, the crusade for Internet freedom – especially when it targets countries that have American sanctions imposed on them – would always prize one's ability to write memos over one's ability to write code.
This is, of course, perverse – but this is just another example of how America's own rules harm the cause of Internet freedom and distort incentives to produce good software. It seems unwise to embark on such quixotic initiatives as the promotion of “Internet freedom” without first getting a thorough understanding of how existing policies may compromise the noble intentions.
p.s. The Guardian finally picked up the story.
So the Haystack Affair (is there a Wikipedia page named after this already?) continues generating food for thought for those of us working at the intersection of free expression, Internet censorship, and media development.
Yesterday I blogged about what the Haystack Affair suggested about the responsibility of "Internet intellectuals." Ethan Zuckerman, who was one of the intellectuals I singled out in that post, eloquently responded to my criticism on his blog.
For those of you who are still following my Haystack chronicles, here is a recent announcement from Haystack's website:
We have halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran pending a security review. If you have a copy of the test program, please refrain from using it.
I hope the Haystack founders would be kind enough to expand on this.
The Haystack fiasco has revealed so many things about the state of play in the "Internet freedom" world that it is enough to produce a collection of essays. Beyond the actual technological details -- which I am sure Jake Appelbaum, Danny O'Brien, and plenty of other technologists will discuss in due time -- several other interesting threads have emerged.
Last week I blogged about Haystack. That post, followed by reply from Austin Heap, Haystack's founder, triggered an interesting and at times heated discussion on mailing lists, blogs, and Twitter.
Some of that discussion was more heat than light, and I am sorry if my original post contributed to that. These issues are of huge importance. And in the interest of focusing on what really matters—the promise of systems like Haystack in protecting dissidents—I would like now to express my understanding of Haystack both more cogently and in greater depth. To be clear: I am not a security specialist. But since my blog post went up I've had many conversations with security/cryptology experts as well as with Austin Heap. I am very grateful for the conversations. My conclusions about Haystack remain very skeptical, and I will explain the sources of that skepticism here as well as reflect on what the Haystack situation reveals about the state of play in the "Internet & democracy" space. Let me emphasize once again that this post is not meant as an attack on Haystack or Austin Heap.
Since this will be a very long post, I'll break the rules and start with some conclusions. You may then want to read or skip some of the technical details before heading straight to the last section that contains some unanswered questions/even broader reflections.
Let's imagine a parallel universe for a second. In that universe, the U.S. State Department decides that energy -- rather than the Internet -- would form one of the core pillars of "21st century statecraft."
To that end, the secretary of state would give a speech about some highly abstract and ambiguous concept like "environmental freedom" that would strike the right chord with the media -- if only because it promises a greener future for all of us!
Since energy-inspired "21st century statecraft" would be difficult to practice without courting the private sector -- the likes of Haliburton, Exxon Mobile, and Chevron -- their executives would be taken on regular tours of exotic places and invited to private dinners with the secretary of state.
People spearheading this kind of energy-inspired "21st century statecraft" would have a very friendly relationship with the corporate world, occasionally leaving government service to work for the giant energy corporations.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
If the world of non-profit technology had its own stock exchange, I'd recommend buying lots of stock in Haystack, a censorship-circumvention software put together by California-based Censorship Research Center in order to help Iranians evade their government's control of the Internet.
Haystack's story makes for great Hollywood material: Bay Area technologists who serendipitiously discover that there is a bloody and violent world beyond Silicon Valley -- the one where people rebel, fight, and die for real and not just as part of some new Facebook game -- decide to dedicate themselves to the fight against authoritarian evil with the help of -- you guessed it! -- the Internet. They are the ones putting "Twitter" into the "Twitter Revolution"! And you too can abet their fight: they've got a whole two Donate buttons on their website!
Not surprisingly, Haystack has been all over the media in the last few months -- most recently in Newsweek -- with its founder Austin Heap getting quite a bit of attention from journalists and policymakers alike. This is, for example, what the ever-modest Heap told Newsweek: "Tomorrow I meet with [Sens. John] McCain, [Bob] Casey, maybe [Carl] Levin, but I don’t know if I will have enough time." (Apparently, the senators have become much more tech-savvy since I left town; perhaps, this comes with age.) And it's not just American media: The Guardian pronounced Heap to be "The Innovator of the Year" -- though personally I would have gone with "The Publicist of the Year," just check this photo -- but then who am I to judge? (Moi -- I am only invited to opine on the Snark of the Year Awards.)
I like Hollywood as much as the next guy -- and yet something just doesn't feel right about Haystack. What really bothers me is that one cannot download and examine their software; as far as the Internet is concerned, Haystack doesn't exist. In fact, Heap says that it is only distributed to trusted contacts inside Iran; putting it online would create a situation where the government could easily get hold of it as well and then reverse-engineer it or ban it or find a way to track its users.
Jeff T. Green/Getty Images
Not long ago I already announced my return to the world of bytes, tweets, and pokes -- only to disappear for another three months. But this time I feel like it's for real: I am back! Spending nearly three months in a Belarusian forest, offline and surrounded by, well, "legacy media" of all sorts, has been a very exhilarating experience. Of course, it was also the worst possible summer to spend in a Belarusian forest -- what's with all those fires? -- but I withstood all the pressure (and no, I didn't meet any partisans).
This summer was full of technology & geopolitical news -- BlackBerry, WikiLeaks, North Korean tweets -- but I wasn't exactly shocked by any of the developments. The recent announcement that Iran is working on their own national search engine did not exactly shock either but it gives your humble blogger a good excuse to reflect on the growing politicization of the Internet in general and of search space in particular.
I've tracked the idea of national search engines for some time -- see my coverage of Russia's plans to do the same here and of Turkey's plans here; this summer we also heard some noises from China on that front.
Now, in the case of Iran, we know very little about this new search enterprise; some fear that it might create some kind of an intranet in Iran -- but that's about it. Let's assume it would be very expensive and very ineffective -- not unreasonable assumptions to make in the context of a sluggish state like Iran, which has a few other things to take care of before exploring the world of Web2.0 in all its glory. (For the record, I can't wait for Tehran to host a delegation from Silicon Valley).
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.