Recent Resources on the Haystack Fiasco and Internet Freedom

Technology fetishes and imaginary revolutions — Haystack and the hype” on War in Context, provides us with a good overview of the hype surrounding Haystack as a way of supporting Iranian dissidents, and the level of support and applause it attracted from the U.S. government and mainstream media. The article also contains a review of its spectacular failure and the profoundly unethical nature of this anti-censorship experiment. Beyond that, the article also raises questions about trust, risk and expertise:

“As technological expertise has become progressively more specialized, the gap between user knowledge and producer knowledge becomes increasingly wider — to a point where for the vast majority of people, every piece of technology upon which we depend operates in ways utterly beyond our understanding.

“Whereas the ability to understand how things work once formed many strands of common knowledge, we now share common ignorance. We pursue knowledge down much narrower tracks and on this basis repeatedly make naive assumptions about expertise whose quality we are unqualified to assess.”

For more on the Haystack fiasco, see:

  • The Great Internet Freedom Bluff of Digital Imperialism: Thoughts on Cyber Diplomacy, Cargo Cult Digital Activism… and Haystack,” at Cultural Bytes— “Projects like Haystack reveal so much more about our own fears of the world. But the bottom line is that Haystack was blown out of proportion from the very beginning for something that it wasn’t. The Haystack Affair, however, is not an isolated incident; it is a continuation of projects coming from Westerners who place their own narratives on people and situations they really don’t fully understand….” A great post for its useful notes on “digital imperialism;”
  • A great article from Jillian C. York, “Haystack and Media Irresponsibility” : “What I don’t think has been raised loudly enough is an objection to the manner in which the media handled the nascent tool….” –her dissection of the ample flaws and gullibility of the media is methodical, comprehensive, and appropriately devastating. Her conclusions? “I certainly blame Heap and his partners–for making outlandish claims about their product without it ever being subjected to an independent security review, and for all of the media whoring they’ve done over the past year. But I also firmly place blame on the media, which elevated the status of a person who, at best was just trying to help, and a tool which very well could have been a great thing, to the level of a kid genius and his silver bullet, without so much as a call to circumvention experts;”
  • Evgeny Morozov, “Were Haystack’s Iranian testers at risk?” at Foreign Policy; “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…” – and this interesting quote from a member of the Censorship Research Center that is behind Haystack, relating U.S. foreign policy to software production, revealing a public-private cyberactivism industry: “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’ss 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.”
  • Evgeny Morozov, “The Great Internet Freedom Fraud: How Haystack endangered the Iranian dissidents it was supposed to protect,” at Slate; “It’s not surprising that the discourse about America in Iran would be infected by conspiracy theories. But this is what happens when you make an unthinking push to liberate the world one tweet and one Google search at a time. Buzzwords like ‘21st-century statecraft’ and ‘Internet freedom’ sound good in PowerPoint presentations, but the State Department can’t just snap its fingers and fix everything for Iranians by creating a free Internet. The reality is that ‘digital diplomacy’ requires just as much oversight and consideration as any other kind of diplomacy;”
  • Evgeny Morozov, “One Week Inside the Haystack,” at Foreign Policy;
  • Cryptography, Iran and America—Worse than useless: An American government attempt to help Iranian dissidents backfires,” at The Economist;
  • Needles in a Haystack: A 20-something named Austin Heap has found the perfect disguise for dissidents in their cyberwar against the world’s dictators,” at Newsweek, containing (among other items worthy of note) a simple yet often missed admission: “democratizing technologies were supposed to lead to democracy. They didn’t. Only later did people realize that the technology was just a tool; what mattered was how it was used” ;

(Heap once declared: “Don’t piss off hackers who will have their way with you. A mischievous kid will show you how the Internet works.” YAWN. Here’s a ZA memo to the self-empowered, tech-addicted, twenty-something gurus who slay dragons on World of Warcraft and say “game on” to real world opponents: um, n00b, you just got pwned.)

Internet Freedom?

Sami Ben Gharbia authored an extensive article, receiving a lot of positive commentary, titled “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital Activism.” This is a must read. The focus of his article is “grassroots digital activism in the Arab world and the risks of what seems to be an inevitable collusion with U.S foreign policy and interests.” He is especially concerned about the “Internet Freedom” mantra emanating from the U.S. State Department, and how Arab digital activism could become coopted and thus defeated as an adjunct of U.S. foreign policy. He notes that “none of the most successful digital activism campaigns and initiatives that have marked this field with innovative and creative approaches in dealing with sensitive topics have been funded by any of the Western governments, institutions, or donors.” Of especial importance is the article’s spotlight on the revolving door between social media corporations and the U.S. government, and U.S. State Department funded research at Harvard that we might call “Internet Terrain Mapping.” Is the U.S. interested in “internet freedom,” or is it just interested in such freedom when it comes to Iran and China?

Gharbia notes in this vein the ideology behind the anti-censorship software:

“While Haystack and Freegate are the kind of ‘ideological circumvention tools’ openly targeting specific countries, mainly China and Iran (like many NGOs that have been created in the West since the 2009 post-election protest), it’s overwhelming clear that other circumvention tools providers and promoters, who claim to address Internet filtering globally, have their attention drawn towards almost the same countries. Sesawe, that presents itself as ‘a global alliance dedicated to bringing the benefits of uncensored access to information to Internet users around the world,’ has followed its counterparts’ pattern in giving a preferential attention to Iran and China in disregard with what’s going on in other countries ‘where Sesawe matters.’ Psiphon, the award winning anti-censorship technology, is giving much attention in the form of tweets to Iran and China too and has been promoting Psiphon proxy nodes via Twitter.”

He summarizes, “there are many other reasons to be skeptical about the prospects of the US involvement in support of Internet freedom under authoritarian regimes that can cause a huge damage to that same freedom, thereby achieving the opposite results than the ‘well-intentioned’ and proclaimed ones.” He examines the work of several U.S. think tanks and U.S. funded “dissident” projects, and calls for Middle East activists to remain independent and apart from such efforts.

“Internet Freedom,” we might note, is rich in hypocrisy when mouthed by U.S. officials, given the fact that the U.S. itself engages in Web censorship, with at least 60 websites on the U.S. SDN list that have been shut down. The U.S.’ persistent jamming of the Taleban’s English-language website—lest we might, as supposedly independent and free citizens, learn something—shows how Internet freedom is anathema to U.S. strategic interests, even if it means keeping its own citizens uninformed and in the dark.


About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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2 Responses to Recent Resources on the Haystack Fiasco and Internet Freedom

  1. Jamshid says:

    Not only was it wrong. It directly damaged a real movement that was trying to get off the ground.
    Just google Iran115 and look what anonymous was doing to him. Before Jacob Applebomb, Iran115 was teling the world Austin Heap was a fraud and haystack was dangerous. The story is Persiankiwi, a fake twitter profile, Josh Shahryar, Reza Pahlavi, Aslan Media, Clinton, Scott Lucas in UK, Melony Mosley, Oxfordgirl, and several others. What I don’t understand is how anonymous took up the Iran thing? Why did they target opposition activists and who funds them?
    What is there connection to Austin Heap, haystack, and this cast of characters that is all very real?

  2. Jamshid says:

    I get so sad and angry when I look back at what happened!
    We realy could have changed the system, but it seems like they were playing games.
    I will talk to anybody about this any time.
    Please call me at 202-509-0933.

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