THE DICTATOR'S PRACTICAL INTERNET GUIDE TO POWER RETENTION
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1. Objective of this guide
2. Essential conditions
2.1 Relative political stability
2.2 Telecom infrastructure control
2.3 Reliable, powerful acolytes
3. Creating optimal surveillance conditions
3.1 Suppressing anonymity
3.2 Suppressing security
3.3 Harnessing private sector innovation
3.3.1 Private industry
3.3.3 Tools and intentions
4. Choosing a control strategy
4.1 Variable tactics
4.1.1 The Dictator's Dilemma
4.1.2 Politicizing vs depoliticizing
4.2 Creating a panopticon : best practices
4.2.1 Use your sympathizers
4.2.2 Make ruthless examples
4.3 Damage control tactics
4.3.1 A hypothetical course of actions
5. Postface (non-guide version only)
6. References (non-guide version only)
1. Objective of this guide
The goal of this guide is to provide leaders of authoritarian, autocratic, theocratic, totalitarian and other single-leader or single-party regimes with a basic set of guidelines on how to adopt the internet to ensure the highest retention of power for the longest period of time.
The best way to achieve this goal is to never have your authority contested. This guide will accompany you in the obliteration of political dissidence. By having everyone agree with you, or having people believe that everyone else agrees with you, your stay at the head of state will be long and prosperous.
As non-democratic regimes come in incredibly varied flavors, some of the formulated recommendations will be of greater relevance for some dictators than others, depending on a long list of factors pertaining to the state you rule (generally, states with higher economical growth rates have easier choices to make). This guide will attempt to cover as much ground as possible, but aims first and foremost to offer general advice.
Current non-democratic states use merely a fraction of the internet's capabilities when it comes to alienating their population. This can be partly attributed to the effectiveness of traditional repressive techniques, the misguided belief that technology has inherent democratic properties or the lack of interest in developing a tech culture. Leaders of non-democratic states need to change their mindsets and better adapt to this new landscape overflowing with opportunity. As you will see, some of these endeavors are not without risks, but the rewards to be reaped are immense and the possibilities, nearly endless.
Contrary to popular belief, technological adoption does not automatically translate into more democratic institutions. Many authoritarian countries which have experienced steady or rapid degrees of ICT diffusion have stayed authoritarian, namely Brunei, Eritrea, Gambia, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Russia and others. This guide aims to distill common threads and useful tricks in order to emulate the success some of these states have achieved.
2. Essential conditions
In order to profit maximally from the internet, you absolutely must fulfill these three prerequisites. As you will see in the next chapter, they are conditional to successfully disabling anonymity and security, your two greatest threats. These conditions will enable you to effectively exercise control mechanisms safely and often at relatively low cost. There are undeniable advantages (economic, political, social) and many collateral gains to be made from a successful implementation of the following recommendations and it is vital for your despotic reign to take these prerequisites very seriously.
2.1 Relative political stability
Firstly, the country you rule must be somewhat "stable" politically - understandably "stable" can be defined differently in different contexts. It is essential that the last few years (at least) have not seen too many demonstrations, protests questioning your legitimacy, unrest, political dissidence, etc. If it is the case, trying to use the internet to your advantage can quickly backfire, especially if you can't fully trust your fellow party officials (this is linked to condition #3). Many examples of relatively stable single-leader states exist if in need of inspiration, Fidel Castro's Cuba for example. Castro successfully reigned over the country for decades, effectively protecting people from the counter-revolutionary individuals. He appointed his brother as the commander in chief of Cuba's army and managed his regime using elaborate surveillance and strict dissuasive mechanisms against enemies of the state. As it is the case with all states, political incidents will occur and test your regime's resilience (the Bay of Pigs invasion or the missile crisis, for example), but even massive states such as China have managed to uphold a single-party model amidst close to 87 000 protests in 2005 and have adapted beautifully to the digital age. Take examples on these states and seek stability, no matter what your regime type is. Without it, you are jeopardizing the two next prerequisites, annihilating your chances to rule with the internet at your side. If you are in the midst of an important political transformation, busy chasing counter-revolutionary dissidents or sending your military to the streets in order to educate protesters, you will need to tame these fires first and come back to this guide afterwards.
2.2 Telecommunication infrastructure control
Most countries already possess the infrastructure to support the internet, at least to some degree. Regardless of that degree, you must ask yourself some important questions : who owns the fiber-optic cables that run through your country? Where are your most important data centers located? How safe are they (both physically and digitally)? Do you have major hubs of traffic control? Who owns these hubs? Does your government have enough trained professionals to operate this infrastructure?
The answers to these questions should help you assess whether you are have sufficient control over your infrastructure to go forward or not with implementing this guide. You must have either direct executive power or overwhelming influence over all parts of the internet supply chain including hubs connecting to other countries, cables within your country, domestic traffic hubs and internet service providers and their parent companies.
You must be in such a position to pull the plug if necessary, to black out cyberspaces (a website, word collections, search terms, servers) just as easily as physical spaces (a neighborhood, a province, a company). Just a few hours before the polls opened for voting at the 2009 elections in Iran, "text messaging went dark, [...] key opposition websites went offline. The government began jamming the frequencies of Farsi-language satellite broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America as well". Having to negotiate with the owner of a network to obtain certain favors is not a option. You are the mainframe and all child processes obey your command. In takes only one rotten apple to ruin it all.
Unfortunately, it will be difficult in some cases to have perfect control of all infrastructure due to varying factors (multiple telecommunications providers, political and structural legacy from past regimes). Russia and China which represent massive geographic areas face this challenge. Although they have different approaches, these two countries have nonetheless managed to compound convincing physical ownership with strong legislative ordinances and heavy government oversight in digital affairs. Regardless of how it is done, make sure you always have the switchboard to your internet at the tip of your fingers.
2.3 Reliable, powerful acolytes
Whether the Minister of Public Safety, Minster of Internal Affairs or a special appointed officer to digital matters is responsible for making up the rules regarding how, what and when the internet is served to citizens, be sure you can trust this person like none other. In a best case scenario, appoint a family member to this position or an old friend who would prefer dying than turning his back on you. The same rule applies to whoever runs all internet Service Providers (ISP) in the country, as they will have to work with your elected official on digital matters daily. Make sure these people are reliable and loyal, give them all the resources they need and make sure to weed out any dissidence, internal corruption or other sources of potential friction within these organizations. As Philip N.Howard writes, elite defection usually marks the end of an authoritarian regime. Make sure this regime isn't yours.
Next to your army's leader, this is certainly one of the last areas of control you will want to surrender. Most ISPs, for historical reasons, have grown out of telecom providers (often, adapting telephone infrastructure to internet infrastructure was not a big hassle), which are often state-funded and controlled. Therefore, remember that they are the gateway to what your population knows, how they know it, where they reach out to get information and how they organize. Keeping a strong grip on ISPs and telecom providers is paramount to your success, as history has taught us that carrying a big violent stick can work well, but having custody of the collective consciousness is usually a much more sustainable evil.
If you are not in a position to fulfill these prerequisites...
The wisest path to follow is to temporarily ban the open internet as aggressively as possible and simply stay off the grid, as North Korea is currently doing. However, is it important to quickly adapt to this new reality and make the necessary changes to meet these aforementioned requirements. Even North Korea will eventually have to open up. It's obsession with staying in the 20th century cannot hold indefinitely while the rest of the despotic world marches on towards technological victory.
3. Creating optimal surveillance conditions
There are two things that are simply not compatible with the regime your run: anonymizing tools and data-encrypting tools. Anonymizing tools meaning that you can perhaps control and surveil internet activity, but you cannot tie this activity to a certain individual. Anonymity thus makes accountability evaporate. Data-encrypting tools meaning that you cannot even see or make sense of the data which runs in the internet cables you control, as it is mangled specifically to avoid being recognizable. The proliferation of online political dissidence in non-democratic states is usually dependent on the tools to anonymize and encrypt data. If you cannot effectively dismantle the use of these tools, it's often a matter of (short) time before political opposition organizes against you.
3.1 Suppressing anonymity (who)
It is absolutely crucial to understand how anonymizing and encrypting tools work in order to ensure they never reach your citizens. There are numerous applications that allow anonymizing a user when connected to the internet, but most function in a similar matter. Internet proxies are the most serious threats in this arena and will be dealt with here, in particular one project called Tor.
It's trivial to tie an individual's activities to his or her internet Service Provider's account [note 1]. But if one wants to connect anonymously to a site without your honorable consent, he can ask another computer to do it for him - masking his own identity. This intermediate server is called a proxy, as it allows people to connect to "in-between" computers to keep one's anonymity. This "in-between" computer will then fetch the information you've requested and send it back to you like a messenger. Retrieving documents through proxies is popular in dissident circles as it allows one to operate under your watchful radar.
What can be done against such vile circumvention techniques? First, good proxies are often become victims of their own popularity. If a proxy is effective, an obvious surge in traffic to an unknown computer will appear, which should be investigated promptly. Stay alert to such spikes and add any new proxy to your blacklist. Second, set up your own proxy servers! Most people connecting to proxies are not technologists, they simply want access to resources that are kept from them. Many assume that proxy providers could only be the product of a "free", "democratic" mind and simply assume they are not monitored. Let your governmental proxy through filters and collect all information about those taking advantage of it - then crack down on them (by then you can have physical addresses) and make a large public case about it. Let your citizens know that you are tech-saavy and setting up your own proxy servers, which should discourage them to try this endeavor ever again.
The Tor Project
A second, more recent and more dangerous threat to watch out for is called Tor. Tor is a bundle that comprises of a large network of nodes run by users - which essentially act as potential proxies - and custom software built to take advantage of this network. The way that Tor distinguishes itself from a normal proxy is fairly simple : Tor is more or less a large network or many intelligent proxies that can communicate with each other. Tor makes possible multiple proxy jumps through these "relays" while carrying only parts of the data to be sent back. This makes it much more complicated to track who is requesting what, as not a single node on the network will show a large spike of traffic, each node is only aware of its previous/next jump and none of the others, added to the fact that Tor nodes can quickly crop up and go down unlike monolithic proxies.
The sophistication of Tor has made many dictators nervous in the last few years (and rightly so), but the need to panic is not necessary. Again, there are a few ways to address this problem. First, make sure to filter out, ban, remove and delete any mention of Tor on your network. This is the first and most important step to take in order to make sure that Tor is simply invisible to your population (as per Tor's statistics, no country other than Iran has a significant user base ). Given that this solution is not exactly a "solution" but merely a precaution, you must prepare to fight fire with fire if Tor enters your country. Since Tor is decentralized and relies on unknown volunteers to grow its network, make sure to set up your own Tor relays, and carefully analyze the traffic flowing through them. Mobilize your cyber-army and hire new digital combatants as quickly as possible. By design, Tor is meant to protect transport of data within its network, but will never be able to control the entry and exit points of this data [note 2]. Focus on these two areas to gather data [note 3] : by doing this, you might know enough to precisely identify who is doing what. Finally, learn more about the project, how it works, who contributes to it, what its internal mechanics are. It is free and open-source, meaning that any of your highly skilled programmers can understand how it functions.
Lastly, a more general and perhaps important thing to remember: while these techniques might seem to incur heavy time and energy investments, you hold an undeniable edge as you create complications, introduce new procedural steps and impose this burden on proxy and Tor users to access simple resources anonymously. Tor grew out of a necessity to protect user's privacy and made a big leap forward in doing so, but also added a new layer of complexity for non-technologists who want to use the internet anonymously. In time, many add-ons and extensions needed to be bolted onto Tor in order to satisfy particular needs [note 4]. As you fight back these initiatives, tools become more and more complex to use, which at the end of the day, will discourage the average user who might simply want to check their Facebook messages.
3.2 Suppressing security (what)
Data encryption is probably a more serious problem than anonymity, where you can tell that someone is requesting "something" but you cannot determine what. On the other hand, it is an easier problem to solve. There are many traffic types on the internet including peer-to-peer, http, VPNs (virtual private networks), FTP, mail, etc. They all use different protocols to communicate data, and all possess different levels of security when transporting this data. For example VPNs (virtual private networks) are specifically designed to encrypt data, http can rely on https for encryption, and so on.
Ban or disable all forms of encrypted content. This certainly includes VPNs and other tunneling technologies. You simply cannot afford to be blind to what your citizens are doing online. Iran has acted wisely on this front in February 2012, effectively blocking https traffic. Whenever possible, catch users off guard and monitor their behavior while giving the impression to be safe. For example, there are ways to hack the the https protocol while users are merely browsing their email or submitting login information on various sites (banks, social networks) [note 5]. Having access to one's email, social networks and bank account extends your options to wherever your imagination can take you. In addition, force device makers and hardware companies to include back-door access to computer components, which you can tap into whenever needed. The next recommendation details this strategy further.
Remember, the point is not to block every single protocol that relies on the internet. Ideally you would only block a small minority of them, and let everyone else go about their business using unencrypted connections. The last thing you want to do is anger your citizens who cannot gain access to their favorite standup comedy shows.
Once you know who does what...
There should be no more secrets for you. Assuming complete political power and enough human resources, you can monitor all bytes flowing through your internet cables and curate what people see and do without breaking a sweat. As Iran has done, build a simple choke point (or funnel) into your internet and proceed with deep packet inspection on all traffic flowing through it. The next portion of the guide deals with "variable strategies" to effectively control your population using the internet, after you've conquered anonymity and security. But first, a section on harnessing the full power of private industry should demonstrate that a strong and docile tech industry can further assist you in your battle against anonymity and security while offloading a lot of your work to the private sector.
3.3 Harnessing private sector innovation
It's possible to seal off your country completely to all new technology and be uncompromisingly severe on your control strategy - North Korea being the leading example here once again. However, this is not recommended unless you are currently putting together the building blocks for your future internet. Such a strategy will eventually erode, then collapse. On the North Korean border to China, cellphone signals can be used to communicate with hand-held devices. As technology improves and devices capable of relaying wireless signals get better, this will only worsen. North Koreans have been caught smuggling South Korean cassette tapes and other goods across the border, and it's only a matter of time before these cracks widen enough that people will want to know the truth which has been kept secret from them. The key is to control which truth people will be able to access.
Depending on your regime's size and power, it is possible to develop state-of-the-art internet infrastructure to serve your citizens but severely filter the data flowing though it, as it is done in some Islamic republics and constitutional monarchies. Many of these regimes don't mind curbing economical development in exchange for cultural capital, but not everyone is oil-rich like Saudi Arabia, for whom such investments are trivial. However, it is also possible to foster a thriving private tech industry and keep companies on a tight leash instead, as Singapore has done.
3.3.1 Private industry
This could seem to not make sense for many of you dictators running communist or socialist single-party states, but a thriving private tech industry may bring you invaluable tools to ease the implementation of a controllable internet. The reason is fairly simple: technologies that transform internet applications into more personalized, efficient and enjoyable experiences are usually the ones that increases the capacity to monitor its users. If internet cookies have solved the problem of stateless servers, they are perfect for tracking users (and even sometimes hacking them ). Even if the internet's basic protocol (TCP/IP) is agnostic to what it carries and what its real-world destination is, clever programmers have quickly built tools that can be layered on top to provide more detailed information. The result is a much more personalized experience (Websites shown in localized language, local currency when buying online, personalized search results to match local realities, targeted ads, etc.) but also tremendous potential to surveil what data is traveling when and where.
Data tracking technology can only bring us to an IP address (what computers use to communicate with each other) which translates into a particular computer address, not a person nor a reliable physical space. But if you've fulfilled prerequisite #3, this isn't a problem anymore. Having full control of your internet Service Provider is the key here, as they are the ones who allocate different subscribers (clients) their IP addresses. As demonstrated earlier (note 1) it becomes trivial to match an IP address' account holder with their online activity.
Once again, making your internet more efficient via private sector innovation has tremendous advantages : 1) you give a greater impression of impartiality, that government is not interfering in the development of important privacy-altering technologies 2) these innovations provide you with a powerful arsenal of surveillance tools 3) you provide your citizens with a richer, more enjoyable internet experience 4) you gain significant economical advantages in creating a new industry of services. As Lawrence Lessig would say "These changes [to the design of the internet] are not being architected by government. They are instead demanded by users and deployed by commerce. [...] Once again, commerce has come to the rescue of regulability."
Hopefully the gains to be made from a booming tech economy are becoming clearer. You might be wondering : "but what happens if this industry's growth spirals out of control and citizens feel the longing for more Web 2.0 kool-aid?". Once again, flex your control muscle. Carefully massage your interests into the industry's ecosystem by whatever means at your disposal. Soft techniques such as subsidizing companies and new developments that enable better surveillance or tracking (competitors will not be in position to rivalize) or creating legislation that favors these same companies (tax breaks, special privileges, etc.) are usually the easiest ones. You can also force certain product makers to include surveillance mechanisms as the German government was found to be doing in 2011 with its "staatstrojaner", a computer virus deployed to watch over "suspected individuals". In the 1970s and 1980s, Lybia forced every computer to be registered with the government. Even in February 2012, Pakistan has published a public tender "for the development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking system.", asking private companies to send in their proposals. Total project worth : $10 million. Are they concerned about public opinion or wanting to hide their intentions? Apparently not - they have even bought ads in newspapers to advertise the call for proposals. Do the same : encourage the growth of the surveillance industry via consumer products and regularly boast about how much your citizens are the technological cream of the crop.
Your citizens need to be regulated, but you can have industry do much of the heavy lifting for you. Instead of creating draconian laws will surely draw the ire of certain citizens, simply encourage a technology maker, enabling a similar end result. Examples of this practice from around the world are way too numerous to list as it has been standard practice since the internet's inception. Every aspect of technology has been a recipient of this "selective preferential treatment" by governments, including a myriad of software, routers, data centers, security firms, social media tools and so much more. This strategy has been tested and proven for decades already, deployed by all Western regimes up to now. It's a public relations gold mine and an unbeatable surveillance plan.
According to Facebook, there are more users of its service in Ottawa, Canada's quiet capital city and home to roughly one million, than in all of China, a country of over a billion inhabitants. While this probably sounds impossible, it will make sense to those familiar with China's aversion to internet services developed by Western states. Facebook has been banned in mainland China (while very popular in Hong Kong) since 2009 and heavily censors or condemns others (Google's Chinese site, for example, now redirects to its Hong Kong counterpart). It's strategy has been to prohibit tools which can put the government's legitimacy in danger while creating national equivalents for its ordinary citizens. Chinese people can't use Google, but they have Baidu. Facebook is banned, but RenRen offers a similar fix. Twitter is nowhere to be found, hail Weibo! All these spinoffs cannot rivalize with their original counterparts from an engineering perspective, but it doesn't matter : they don't need to. As long as the experience is close enough to the original, there is not much for users to complain about (all these services are free, after all). It might seem like you are replacing an evil with another evil, but there is a very fundamental difference that is often invisible to the user: the rulers of China can (and do) create legislation that support their tough censorship policies, which companies from China must abide by. Additionally, China's leaders can sleep much more soundly, knowing that its massive internet population's data resides within the borders of its country, and not somewhere near the beachy shores of California, subject to American legislation.
Take advantage of the fact that American or European service providers are often not familiar with the realities of your local communities. Make use of different population's religions, languages, local customs, etc. to provide them with an online experience they can connect with - surely they will feel more trustful towards this rather than a vanilla template someone in Mountain View designed. As long as the larger overarching system uses infrastructure you control and is subject to legislation you have power over, the more people enroll in social and local internet services, the better. One of the most popular email services in China is actually Yahoo!, in part because it was founded by Chinese entrepreneur Jerry Yang, but also because it signed the "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese internet Industry". Sometimes, it is not even necessary to clone a popular western service as these companies will, once in while, do all the dirty work for you. In a best case scenario, online services should serve as a soft mouthpiece to gently enforce governmental policy.
At the time of writing, Russia, a world-renown champion at numbing its internet users with "entertainment media" is struggling with a political crisis that partly hinges on the use of an American website called LiveJournal. Because "its servers were in the US at a time when the Russian government was tightening the screw on private media, it was seen as a guarantee of freedom of speech".
The lessons to be leaned from China and Russia are important : letting people chatter on micro-blogging services and social networks is harmless if you control these networks and monitor its contents. Even better, have these services depend on governmental resources, putting you one step closer to the data of its users.
3.3.3 Tools and intentions
In the summer of 2010, the Hackers On Planet Earth Conference (H.O.P.E) took place in New York City, which had Julian Assange the founder of Wikileaks, a website that lets whistleblowers submit secret documents to it, scheduled to give the keynote speech. This was barely 2 months after Wikileaks had released the leaked video "Collateral Murder" showing American soldiers gunning down journalists in Baghdad, and just before hundreds of thousands of other war documents were to be leaked (The Afghan War Diary and The Iraq War Logs). Assange didn't show up for the keynote, probably for security reasons as worldwide media coverage of the events was at its peak. In his place, security researcher Jacob Appelbaum took the podium and gave a speech about security, anonymity and the project that kept him busy at the time, Tor. As mentioned earlier, Tor "helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy". Of course, rock-solid security plays an instrumental role for Wikileaks - at least if it wishes to protect its sources. Tor gained a lot of subsequent traction and Abbelbaum's work certainly made him a marked man in the United States. His Twitter updates testify of the hard time border and customs officials have given him when entering or leaving the country, confiscating equipment, subjecting him to many interrogations, etc. A status he tweeted on Jan 19th 2011 read "I'm looking forward to a time when I'm not on a secret watch, search, harass, detain, interrogate, delay, annoy and stress list." The American government were throwing everything they had at Appelbaum. Obviously someone who worked hard to anonymize whistleblower's identities (which in this case, leaked very embarrassing data for the government) needed to be watched carefully.
During the next few months we witnessed the discontent of populations from middle eastern and northern African countries demanding more democratic states and for their leaders to either cede power or simply step down. These demands have stemmed from a mixture of slow processes (politicization, to name one), accumulated dissatisfaction (constant restrictions on freedom of speech, for example) and pivotal moments (Mohamed Bouazizi's immolation in Tunisia, for instance). I won't delve into these catalyzing elements here (I deal with how to (de)politicize your population later), but it's important to consider how internet technology might have aided in organizing, synchronizing and informing these populations about their own regime, upcoming local events, etc. Even in countries like Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where censorship is swift and unforgiving, populations have managed to bypass certain governmental filters and remain anonymous, thanks to software like Tor! Hillary Clinton's seminal speech in 2010 about internet freedom and its role in the democratization process echoed the demands of these states' populations : "information freedom supports the peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress. We need to put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights". It just so happens that the same piece of software the U.S government is severely condemning for its ability to anonymize its users could also be the cornerstone of new revolutions in non-democratic countries.
This short story about Tor, Wikileaks and American foreign policy should serve as a cautionary tale for all serious dictators. It is meant to illustrate how technologies, put in a different context, can hold incredibly different powers that will enable or disable your control strategy. It also shows how silencing technologists that currently work against you is not always the best solution. By creatively repurposing tools produced by your local tech industry, you can disguise your true intentions and more effectively control your citizens. Additionally, carefully ponder your options when faced with talented hackers and bright engineers (whether they are on your side or not, ideologically speaking), as they might believe in certain ideals (freedom of information, security, anonymity etc.) which will sometimes align with your governmental policies and sometimes not. When new technologies are being developed to undermine your regime, take the time to reverse engineer them, take them apart, try to imagine them for other uses, in other contexts, combined with other factors (which you might have great control over). Moreover, are the creator's intentions primarily political or technological? Aided with competent engineers, such an attitude will tremendously increase both your offense (to implement your control strategy) and your defense (anticipating and fighting off your opponents).
4. Choosing a control strategy
4.1 Variable tactics
By suppressing anonymity and security you've put yourself in an enviable position. The internet is now an open, tranparent book. The next step? Gather as much intelligence as possible : what is your population interested in? How are they using the internet? Are citizens streaming stand up comedy shows to relax after a long day of forced work? Do they read the news on one of your own state-owned websites? Do they engage in discussion about your nation's history by posting to online forums? Most probably all of the above, but in what proportion? How does internet consumption vary in domestic usage VS international usage? Who are the dissidents in your country and where do they live? Who are their friends? Which school did they attend? At this point these questions should be easily answered.
4.1.1 The Dictator's Dilemma
Once you have gathered this data, the key is to develop a control strategy tailored to your particular needs, which fits the specific qualities of your current regime. If you run a more repressive regime (like China or Iran), chances are you will need to allocate more resources to banning/removing content and operating selective "shutdowns". If you run a softer non-democratic state (Russia or Singapore), more energy needs to be poured into propaganda. This often even reduces the amount of surveillance needed to monitor citizens as dissident voices often get drowned in the sea of digital chatter. Whatever shade of digital control you decide is right for your country, stick by it and enforce it at all costs. Often, you will be forced to choose between economic benefits and political risk. Having a more liberal approach will boost your economy by developing an industry of services and online commerce, but also heighten the risk of your population developing a sense of political autonomy.
In many cases, a combination of many interfering actors will yield the best results : having a sophisticated cyber-police to ban selected content swiftly and effectively, a heavy propaganda artillery, a strong political will to enforce legislation and a thriving private industry to produce centralizing tools that facilitate surveillance is one of such possible configurations.
It's important to note that we have certainly not yet exhausted all the possibilities for control over cyberspace (non-democratic regimes constantly innovate on this front) and it is encouraged to experiment with new techniques adapted to your specific needs in order to stay ahead of the curb. The amount of options at your disposal is usually proportional to the breadth and speed at which new technologies emerge and develop in the private industry.
4.1.2 Politicizing vs depoliticizing
As per the previous point, the next recommendations can unfortunately not be served as a pre-packaged set of universal rules to follow. Its goals is to have a country's leader decide if, and to what extend, citizens will be engaging in political life and under which circumstances. However, I have broken down the two main options that should be available to you depending on the type of non-democratic regime you are running: authoritarian or totalitarian. To stay consistent with your current policies, dictators of authoritarian states who allow independent social and economic institutions (as it is usually the case - for example in Singapore) might prefer to heavily depoliticize their population, while the more holistic approach of totalitarianism (Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany for example) would suggest that turning everything into a political act might be a wiser choice. Furthermore, it's important to mention that the totalitarian approach will be harder to execute successfully since it relies on perfect control of user's online activity. It would be advisable if you are in such a situation to consider slowly migrating to the more subtle, mind-entrenching depoliticizing of your population.
Politicizing and depoliticizing a large audience takes time. It is often a slow process that cannot be achieved overnight. When trying to instill a collective state of mind to a large body of people, there is no real quick fix and small incremental steps must be taken to avoid jumping the gun. It's also important to point out that starting this process when people are in the streets protesting and organizing through social media is doomed to fail. If you've arrived at this point, you unfortunately have other problems to solve and should either jump directly to the last part of this guide on damage control and social media tactics, or start again at the beginning. As Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Mediam wrote in his popular internet piece "The First Twitter Revolution?" , "any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor -- technological, economic, or otherwise -- is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update". When you start the process of (de)politicization, be methodical and build up your political capital slowly. You should see this endeavor as a long-term investment.
Strategy A : Depoliticization means entertainment.
In C.S. Lewis' satirical Screwtape letters, Screwtape, senior demon working for the Devil, explains to his nephew at the beginning that "the trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground. [...] By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?" What Screwtape is essentially suggesting is to stay away from polemic, argument and confrontation. The best way to not awaken someone's mind is to distract it and make sure it stays dull.
You should follow this example (the book is also a recommended read, as it hold many useful tactics for psychological warfare) as entertainment and distraction is probably the best pressure valve to pacify an audience living under a tough regime. To this end, western media can be a blessing. If you run an authoritarian state and tolerate a private sphere within society, American talk shows, funny image websites, video websites and blogging platforms can be extremely powerful allies. Even more "dangerous" platforms such as wikipedia and social media outlets can be tremendous hypnotizers if censored and curated carefully. The only important rule to follow in this context : block any politically sensitive content and avoid any topic that relates to past or current state of affairs in the country. Render social and political issues non-visible or make them appear trivial. David Letterman's show is okay, discussion forums about your national history is not. Documentaries about wildlife conservation is okay, short films about living conditions in other nations is not. Sports coverage should be encouraged, self-help books advertised and gambling can be wildly popular but freedom of press should not be a topic to be found on the internet. In practice, this will often translate into banning domestic content in the local languages and opening up to international content in English. Take example on Iran which actually censors more Persian-language content than English-language content.
As you filter and inspect your citizen's internet packets (with the help of your friend appointed to manage these affairs), disable and crack down on any mention of these hot topics but make sure open the gateways to illegal downloading of Sex in The City or the last episode of House. As you restrict many freedoms, it's important for your population to be able to unwind, laugh a bit and give them a sense of superficial joy. Provide them with gossip material for the next day. There is a balance to be stricken between effective suppression and benign entertainment. Without it, you risk feeding a sentiment of desperation, which eventually leads to an angering of the masses. Letting your citizens on social networking sites as it is done in China occupies many youth's time and mental space which might otherwise be used for critical reflection - this can be dangerous to your regime. Let them flirt on social networks, let them discuss the previous night's outing, let them post pictures of themselves often, let them send funny video links to each other by email. Give your procrastinators the impression that they are free to express themselves as much as they fancy, as there is nothing dangerous about a narcissist, self-absorbed population. They are not the ones likely to trigger a revolution.
Indeed, if you run a politically and socially more liberal authoritarian regime, letting Western media flood your internet can be an effective numbing force, not to mention its nonexistent cost (let the others produce the content for you). As it was recently shown in their study "Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Free Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes" Kern and Hainmueller have demonstrated that "foreign free media actually helped stabilize one of the most oppressive communist regimes in eastern Europe, the German Democratic Republic". Their discoveries, albeit counterintuitive, are an eye opener. Eastern Germans had access to Western television which "offered an escape from bleak socialist reality at least for a couple of hours each day". In fact, "East Germans who tuned in to West German television became more, and not less, satisfied with the East German regime. Instead of fostering resistance to the communist dictatorship, the narcotizing effect of television served to stabilize rather than to undermine communist rule." The Russian government has seemingly learned much from these techniques. As Morozov points out : "From the governments' perspective, it's far better to keep young Russians away from politics altogether, having them consume funny videos on Russia’s own version of YouTube, RuTube (owned by Gazprom, the country's state-owned energy behemoth), or on Russia.ru, where they might be exposed to a rare ideological message as well. Many Russians are happy to comply, not least because of the high quality of such online distractions."
As Screwtape the Demon himself would describe mortals, "Never having been a human, you don't realize how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary."
Strategy B : Politicizing means constant pressure.
Alternatively, you can also choose the second option which is to turn every thought and action, including internet ones, into political acts. This approach would typically go hand in hand with any flavor of authoritarianism and suggest a much tighter control of internet activity. Essentially, you must leave no margin for error and compulsively seek and destroy any beginning of anti-regime discourse. Instead of using heavy propaganda to convince people that your ideas are the best, use the internet to turn every user into an zealot that will eventually police other peers for you. Every piece of information to be found in digital form should relate to the regime's greatness somehow, otherwise filter it out. Make sure to organize and promote nationalist discourse in fora, (micro) blogs, chat relays, news outlets, free and paid movies, podcasts, music, image boards and every other possible application that bolts onto TCP/IP. To avoid having too many people drop out and ignore your internet if they judge it too extreme, post relevant information for citizens online that force them to use it. For example, public services schedules, national holiday information, important national speeches, food stamp printouts, etc. In essence, you simply need to transpose the basic rules that govern your regime into digital equivalents. Although this might sound simpler at first by virtue of not needing to dream up a new strategy, remember that controlling cyberspace is not the same as controlling physical space. If you've carefully fulfilled the requirements to this guide, your digital crusade should not be too difficult. On the other hand, if you don't control adequately your physical infrastructure and cannot have direct access to user's raw internet data through politicians under your full control, this can prove much harder than using Strategy A.
The most obvious example of such an implementation would be North Korea's internet policy, which has adhered to such principles so seriously, we actually don't know very much about their mysterious internal internet - which is actually a nation-specific intranet. Speaking on the subject, Jonathan Zittrain mentions "In such a situation, any information leakage from the outside world could be devastating, and internet access for the citizenry would have to be so controlled as to be useless.". In all appearances, North Korea has managed to pull together an air-tight control strategy and adapted it meticulously to its internet space. As Sue Lloyd-Roberts reported from North Korea, she observed that "ordinary people here are forbidden access to the internet. The dear Leader has arranged for all that they need to know", speaking of its regulated cyberspace.
It would be a lie to suppose that this approach could be sustainable in the longer term, as small breaches in such a system - which are very hard to avoid in a completely globalized world - could be catastrophic. It's a gamble to be betting on such a high-risk strategy, but it can definitely keep you going for some years while you prepare a transition towards a model resembling Strategy A.
4.2 Creating a panopticon : best practices
4.2.1 Use your sympathizers
Imagine the government you are running is having popularity issues. Your citizens are slowly growing unhappy with some of your decisions, and a shift in public opinion can be felt. This discontent then manifests itself online in small outbursts as you realize that only a minority of die-hard fans still believe in your authority. Yet many people sitting on the fence are still cautious about their actions are prefer to lay low, knowing the power of your wrath.
If you've met the three essential condition of this guide, you can give the impression of control and consensus. Use the minority of fanatics, have them work for you. Assuming you can influence the topology of heavily used domestic websites, set up online forms to denounce traitors. Create campaigns to incite individuals to watch out for "suspect" behavior. Set up groups and online militias that patrol internet forums, chat rooms, online groups and other dark corners of the internet. Give them compensation and cherish these volunteer spies, as they can often reach online spaces that you will never have access to. Be on the lookout for disgruntled members of the opposing parties (if any exist). By making these public campaigns and setting up online forms on many websites, the internet population knowns that it is being watched not only by you, the state, but also by everyone else.
Take example on Saudi Arabia where citizens "themselves can nominate words and websites they would like blocked by the government firewall".
4.2.2 Make examples
In a paper published this year, Pearce and Kendzior have demonstrated how "the [Azerbaijani] government has successfully dissuaded frequent internet users from supporting protest and average internet users from using social media for political purposes". The attitude of the government can be summarized as : "They punish some people and let everyone else watch. To say, 'This is what can happen to you". The paper studied social media activism between 2009 and 2011, a period during which they observed that "frequent internet users became significantly less supportive of protests against the government, indicating that the government's campaign against online activism was successful." During those same years, it was noted that Facebook users grew steadily and social media usage was on the rise.
Of course, ex-Soviet Union states possess an arsenal of tricks you can learn from, but even on the other side of the globe, smart government officials have also cooked up clever ways to scare populations enough to discourage "illegal" activities. The first decade of the new millennium was a massive battleground for legal skirmishes involving the music industry (defending copyright owners) versus tech companies, service providers and individuals in the US. The latter were often accused of either facilitating or performing the illegal download and sharing of files (usually music). Both sides won major battles and suffered heavy losses along the way, but the outcome of these battles is not of much interest for this guide. Rather, it is compelling to look at the RIAA's (Record Industry Association of America) tactics to terrorize a population and make examples by specifically targeting harmless individuals and taking them to court for virtually nothing. By the end of 2008, the RIAA had filed at least 30 000 lawsuits against individuals in the hopes of creating a powerful deterrent to make illegal downloaders think twice before sharing copyrighted material. The number might seem large, but considering the number of cases that were dropped or settled outside courts - when compare the millions of files transferred peer-to-peer using file-sharing sites (torrent indexes, for example), this number actually amounts to a very small fraction. But the goal of the RIAA and other large corporations was not to make money by asking $80 000 or 2$ million, as different courts have ordered Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a women in her thirties making 36 000$ per year, to pay out. They knew that going after everyone who shared at least one copyrighted file was not only unreasonable but simply impossible, so they set out to scare the living hell out of ordinary internet users instead. The strategy did not really work well (they eventually turned to ISPs, wanting to "collaborate" with them to block and filter content ) in large part because the RIAA has not managed to unequivocally prove the defendants guilty and have them pay in full the amounts asked of them.
But you can do much better than this. Assuming your country has tightly integrated political and jurisdictional spheres, it should be much easier to make these ridiculous sentences a reality, just like in Azerbaijan. A survey conducted after the RIAA's campaign against individuals showed that over 25% of respondents that ceased downloading music chose to do so "being afraid to get in trouble/heard about the RIAA lawsuits". While this survey was performed on a small sample, it still provides insight on the level of efficiency that even a rather unsuccessful campaign can have. Imagine if the vast majority of those 30 000 had been automatically fined an amount in the six digits, plus a few years in prison. It is not hard to see that 25% jump to 50%, 75% or even more. Consider the following : in July 2009, "the Iranian Parliament began debate on a measure to add websites and blogs promoting 'corruption, prostitution and apostasy' to the list of crimes punishable by death." How's that for a good deterrent?
You should take example on the RIAA, especially given the very low cost of such spectacular crackdowns. Your digital soldiers can probably find 10 000 "internet criminals" guilty of posting hate speech within a day. People in all types of states have been arrested, beaten, detained, sent to jail and could even face the death penalty (like Hossein Derakhshan in Ian) for crimes such as "insulting security services", "violating cultural norms" and "insulting Islam". Sometimes no reason was given at all and some of these criminals will be in prison many years for simple comments posted online.
Make these cases public, make them personal. Make them in such a way that every citizen can easily imagine him or herself in the place of that poor, unlucky person who just got caught for writing a politically ambiguous statement online. Also, make the cases ideological and moralistic : these trials and accusations should bear a heavy moral burden and serve as a lesson about good and evil. Shape your citizen's behavior using sporadic raids like these and your opponents will eventually not be able to tolerate the psychological pressure. If this reduces the amount of political dissidence online by 50%, that's half the amount of dangerous data you need to find, ban and filter out. Be overzealous in your enforcing techniques and a powerful panopticon will take hold of your population. In conjunction with the last suggestion to use the biggest fans of your regime to lend you a hand in unearthing the bad apples, an effective self-policing pattern with inevitably emerge among your internet users.
4.2.3 Damage control tactics
If people manage to stay secure and anonymous, share politically sensitive material online and start demanding change, you might have a serious problem on your hands, as it happened to Tunisia, Egypt and Iran recently. Often, the (de)politicizing process will not work as intended, and then another inevitable problem follows : citizens start organizing dissidence using social media, as no real-world equivalent comes even close to its effectiveness. Being in this situation is not ideal, but while you're in it you should take advantage of it. If your opponents are in a hurry and forget certain important details, you can leverage the power and reach of social media to easily track down and surveil individuals. You can then interfere and choke the movement swiftly if needed. Social media, as you will find out, opens up certain doors that were always closed to you. When your citizens are angrily protesting in the streets and organizing using social media, consider the following :
* As mentioned in the previous example regarding Azerbaijan, it is not very difficult to curb your activists' enthusiasm by showing them how unforgiving you will be for even small offenses. Make clear that while social media might be tolerated, any form of political dissent is completely unacceptable.
* Fostering a revolution is one thing, overthrowing a government is a second, and replacing it with a new government is a third. There are many gradual steps that most revolutions go through, and social media, the dissident's favorite internet tool, will only help in one or two of these steps - namely organizing and mobilizing. Social media is not very effective at politicizing an audience, nor is it good at putting pressure on politicians or implementing demanded change. It is effective to spread information and at times, to organize in groups (when a structure is too horizontal, social media often becomes more confusing that helpful though). "Technology alone does not cause political change - it did not in Iran’s case. But it does provide new capacities and impose new constraints on political actors. New information technologies do not topple dictators; they are used to catch dictators off-guard."
* There is no need to fear social media for two main reasons. The first is that, although you might witness numerous ideological attacks from social media users on your regime, the ones that matter are the ones coming from within your country. Even if millions of tweets are sent from outside your borders (the diaspora, or anti-regime supporters), what difference does it make if your citizens never see them? This puts pressure on your politicians from other country's leaders, but it is easily handled with traditional political tactics. Focus on what happens within your country, this is where social media activity should be watched closely. Second, social media is a lot of talk, not much show. It appears that Twitter and Facebook are the best places for non-voting narcissist types to hang out, studies have shown. It's rather laughable to examine the average Facebook user's "pages, supported causes and groups" and contrast it with the actual ground support or financial support they receive. "Thanks to its granularity, digital activism provides too many easy ways out. Lots of people are rooting for the least painful sacrifice, deciding to donate a penny where they may otherwise donate a dollar."
* If you effectively decide to enter this arena, be prepared. Have a massive, round-the-clock army of digital warriors. You cannot relent for a single moment as spontaneous online gatherings can explode in a matter of minutes. Also, be ready to let go of strategies you might have used in the past. At this point you will need to take chances, and the worst thing you can do is turn to old media solutions to fight problems of a different nature. Speaking of Iran's internet revolution, Howard offers that "in some ways the regime's response was decidedly old media: expelling foreign correspondents, blocking phone lines, preventing the publication of daily newspapers, and accusing enemy governments of spreading misinformation." Except for the last bit about blaming (which is less media-related), these strategies have very little effect of new media crises.
4.3.1 A hypothetical course of actions
In practice, here are a few things you can do :
1. Blame Western regimes for trying to create unrest. They have a rather extensive history of performing this type of intervention, which makes your words easily believable. Simultaneously, use this opportunity to invigorate nationalistic discourse and blame specific companies that you were seeking to ban on your territory anyways. Chances are very high that the tools you condemn are from Western regimes (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), this will provide you with extra gunpowder.
2. Make sure to point out the close relationships between governmental agencies in the USA and the CEOs of different companies and their tendencies to swap personnel. A ridiculously clear example of this could be Regina Dugan, DARPA's Director (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) taking a job at Google in March 2012. Stress the fact that many of these social media tools have a clear political vocation. In February 2012, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook published a letter to explain what Facebook stood for, as he intends on making Facebook a public company. His IPO letter reads : "We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialog around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials [...]" This overtly shows Facebook's intentions to step into the political realm and should be denounced as interference in your domestic affairs.
3. There's nothing worse than Facebook and Twitter on the loose. Coincidently, there's nothing better than Facebook and Twitter under your control.
3.1 Once the opposition has used social media to connect with each other, you have access to the richest intelligence regarding your opponents. As Iran did during the protests following the 2009 election, "while this content was flowing, the government closely inspected digital traffic to try and identify social movement leaders." Later on, they even pulled the plug during 45 minutes in order to initialize its "deep packet inspection system" Often, this information is even public. If such groups and organizations are private, then simply flex your ISP muscle and use your influence on the actual providers to access this information (this is why prerequisite #3 is so important). The gains to be made here are exceptional - including, but not limited to :
- Your opponent's leaders' names and contact information
- The internal structures of activist groups
- The connections to other opponents and enemies of the regime
- Information regarding their resources, either monetary or intelligence
- Private information including pictures, address, phone numbers, emails, etc.
- Insights on their personalities and profiles (where do they shop, what do they eat, etc.)
Obviously, by cross-referencing this data you can draw a very accurate picture of your opponent and easily predict its next move. You can also use this data to arrest, intimidate and destroy your opponent. Put your engineers to good use and extract the immense value out of this raw data, provided by the same services you will be blaming for trying to create unrest and interfering in your domestic affairs.
3.2 You have tons of tools at your disposal : use face recognition software, which is available freely online and then personalize it to your own needs. Make use of reverse image search engines to find the source of certain images. Services like Querily can scrape someone's online data in a snap for a small fee (based on email addresses) and even cloud-based WPA-password cracking services exist (often the standard for home routers) such as CloudCraker, if you need to get into people's private home networks. These tools are often free or very cheap - whenever possible you should create your own or subsidize the private industry to create them for you.
3.3 Use the power of third-party apps to gather as much data as you can about your population. Create third-party apps that ask for the user to connect with their social media account (this is very common) and authorize access to its data. For example, the new 2012 Obama Campaign website allows users to sign in using Facebook, which gives access to "name, profile picture, gender, networks, user ID, list of friends, and any other information you've made public" - a real gold mine. Not to mention that these permissions are minimal, and most users wouldn't complain if more were asked from them. The responsibility appears to be on Facebook to protect user's data, but it is not. Once a user grants access to an application, any the third party can easily scrape and store everything falling under those permissions. Perhaps the most valuable asset here is the list of friends, which you should pay special attention to when you are tracking down dissidents. There seems to be no record of this being done before, but any smart dictator under pressure from a social media tsunami should build the most effective organizing mobile app for dissidents to use, and force the sign-in process to go through social media. Everything you ever wanted to know about every person that represents a threat to your regime, at your fingertips.
3.4 If you've followed the previous steps, you should have more data about dissidents available to you than needed to disable and arrest the important actors of a movement. Remember, tweets don't make a revolution, people do.
As Appelbaum mentioned while talking about the use of mobile phones to organize its protest movements, "[in Iran], they give you enough rope to hang yourself from".
Make sure to do the same.