"Internet & Society" in Armenia and Azerbaijan?
First Monday


"Internet & Society" in Armenia and Azerbaijan? Web Games and a Chronicle of an Infowar

Contents

Introduction
What Next? Implications for "Internet & Society in Armenia and Azerbaijan"

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Introduction

In 1996 in the days when the norms of Web behaviour were still fluid (and how-to books on 'netiquette' were still being written), I found it somewhat intriguing to check the log files of the EASST Review, the Web site of an academic journal that I administer. I would examine the log files to see who or what was hitting and linking to the site. From the "traces" - the DNS information and the referral logs - I could deduce on a couple of occasions who was searching the Web for themselves and had visited the site. Back in those summer days (I only found time to do it in August), it was amusing to send some scientists a congratulatory message, saying that we were glad they found themselves on the EASST Review site, with the hope that they would return again soon. We dubbed the practice 'academic humor'.

In 2000 it is now not so funny to play those Web games, and worse ones, certainly in Armenia and Azerbaijan. While I was in Yerevan, Armenia at the "Internet & Society" conference organized by the Armenian Information Technology Foundation, and sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, the Open Society Institute and the Council of Europe, I learned how far Web games have gone, and how seriously they are taken. Armenia and Azerbaijan, I understood, have been engaged in an 'infowar'. Having read analyses of this coming peril [1], I took it upon myself in the aftermath of the conference to find out just what that is in practice, and draw up some implications for "Internet & Society in Armenia and Azerbaijan."

In late 1999 Ararat Technologies, an organization based in Northridge, California, mounted a Web site, called aliyev.com. Aliyev is the name of the Azeri president, who came to power in a military coup in 1993, and in 1998 was re-elected illegitmately, according to international observers. Aliyev.com contains serious, critical perspectives on Azeri politics and the president, together with a number of references in the form of a book list. Yet the site does not identify its authors. (I'll return to this later.) In January 2000 "Green Revenge" [2] working in tandem with "Hijak Team 187"[3] - again Web sites without listed authors - took revenge on the appearance of aliyev.com by hijacking or page-jacking (in the parlance) about a score of high-profile Armenian sites in Armenia, United States, and Canada, according to the Azeri Zerkalo Daily newspaper [4]. The page-jackers changed the DNS information of the sites and re-directed them to their own sites. Visitors to the international and local "Armenian" sites, including aliyev.com, the Armenian National Institute in Washington, D.C. (dedicated to the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918), American Armenian Assembly (a lobby group) [5], and the Yerevan-based Armenian television site, met the Green Revenge site, with a clickable map of Azerbaijan leading to the Azeri president's official Web page, and not, as Green Revenge points out, to the sites "besmirching Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani people and their leader - President Heydar Aliyev." Note that the acts are justified by reference to the information on the sites, not by standard hacker reference to revealing security flaws. This may be said to be one of the makings of infowar.

Condemnation of these actions soon followed, with the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling them a violation of human rights (to the open access of information), and the Armenian National Institute in Washingon, D.C. calling in the Computer Crime Squad of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only the director of the Armenian provider, Arminco, held the view that it all shouldn't be taken too seriously [6].

It became a full-fledged infowar less than one month later. On one late Friday afternoon, 11 February 2000, an Armenian group - Liazor - hit back. Apparently, they looked up the DNS information of some 25 leading Azeri sites, sent spoof e-mails to Network Solutions domain name registrars, changed the administrative information (the "handles") on the sites, and re-directed most of them to the Liazor site with the message "Don't Trouble Troubles until Troubles Trouble You." [7] A few of the sites were redirected to a New Zealand Bed & Breakfast. The downed sites comprised not only the leading Azeri sites but those of the major international donor organizations based in Azerbaijan, including the site of the Open Society Institute (www.osi-az.org). Discussing some of the consequences, David Stubbs, the OSI-AZ Director, explained over conference coffee that 45-minute waiting queues on the line to staff at Network Solutions resulted in a $1,000 phone bill, something other downed Azeri organizations certainly could not afford. It was a nuissance. Sites were down for weeks while the calls were being made and faxes sent. The Associated Press (in a story dated 17 February) summed up the state of affairs, saying that officials in both countries called for a halt to the attacks, for they fear they could 'completely destroy each country's Web sites.'

The most sophisticated act by Liazor, however, was the downing and remounting of the Azeri Zerkalo Daily newspaper, which reappeared on Monday morning, 14 February, with changed content about the ongoing (off-line) peace negotiations between Presidents Kocharian of Armenia and Aliev. The "newspaper" read that the Armenian border to Turkey has been reopened and that the Azeri's have finally agreed to a land swap, giving Armenia territory back in Nagorno-Karabakh, currently held by Azerbaijan (whose sovereignty over the land is upheld by the United Nations). There is an Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the countries began a war over the territory in 1988; Turkey and Azerbaijan have closed their borders to Armenia. Conference word had it that the Azeri president himself, abroad for the negotiations, looked up the newspaper on the Web on that very Monday morning.

Meanwhile, the guestbook that the Azeri group, Green Revenge, had put up on its Web site in January is where the action was taking place. The word "chat" always sounds somewhat sweet and perhaps a little spicy, but the exchanges on that site between (presumably real) Azeris and Armenians from both within the countries and from the respective diasporas have been vitrolic, venomous. The 'dialogue' puts on view a deep-seated holy war. In the exchanges there’s the history of genocide, land battles, retaliatory massacres, all couched in curse. There are interpretations of historical alliances between the Azerbaijani and their 'Chechen brothers,' with Armenians meant to be in league with the Russians. Much is also said about Armenian women, and Azeri sheep. As word of Liazor's avenging actions arrived in Green Revenge's chat space, the exchanges become more hateful, with promises of further revenge. About a week after the Liazor actions, though, the chat went quiet. A final message listed on the Green Revenge site, dated in July 2000, reads:

"As I understood the 'war' is over. I would like just to know what u will do next?"

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What Next? Implications for "Internet & Society in Armenia and Azerbaijan"

At the conference in Yerevan, where the infowar was discussed only informally, a representative from the World Bank put forth big-figure plans to erect standarized national portals across the region of the former Soviet Union. These would be "global gateways" for each country, to include e-everything, from governance to commerce [8]. In another moment, a United Nations Development Program representative sincerely asked whether or not there were any examples of developing countries that had invested heavily in the Internet, and thereby pulled themselves out of the mire. (No one had heard of any as of yet.) Surely, the prospect of economic development in newly Internetted countries (NICs) weighs heavily in some quarters, and Internet instability and corruption (like instability and corruption on the ground) would not build confidence. But I would like to discuss, briefly, a series of quite different implications of the new Internet for Armenia and Azerbaijan, beginning with the countries' fresh connections to global civil society, and the local impact of some of the tricks of their trade.

The argument about the embodiment of culture in technology often makes empirical reference to cases of technology transfer. The technology may leave the West, but the West never leaves the technology, it is often shown. (The World Bank's new "global gateway" project would be a ready subject for this sort of analysis.) In the case of the infowar, however, it appears that of global civil society's technical 'tactics' and 'culture', only the tactics made the trip to the Azeri-Armenian Web space. Here 'culture' specifically refers to codes of conduct and common understandings of the significance of Webby, anonymous publication. I would like to pursue the question of whether the tactics arrived without the culture by first discussing the theatrical practice of "roguing" (or spoofing) Web sites as well as potentially more serious (but still theatrical) distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Do these tools of the trade export well to the Caucasus? Do they fuel conflict, and incite "infowar" and worse?

The gravitas issue becomes trickier, however, when more and more bone fide sources publish on the Web, and particularly when newly Internetted countries take to the Web with their serious information.

The Web has been discussed in terms of the (infrastructural) opportunities it provides for producing in the surfer the 'epistemological moment,' i.e., the instance when one questions the extent to which one has arrived at the site of an imposter, posing as the real source, and whether that matters [9]. The question of whether it matters has to do with the Web's overall credibility problem. Both regular users and the newly discovered class of "former users" [10] (who have left the medium for all its "rubbish") understand that one must continually question the 'gravitas' of Web publication. The gravitas issue becomes tricker, however, when more and more bone fide sources publish on the Web, and particularly when newly Internetted countries (and their diaspora and lobby groups) take to the Web with their serious information. With the publication of aliyev.com, and the re-publication of the Zerkalo Daily on that Monday morning (14 February), a certain stripe of global civil society came calling in the Armenian-Azeri space. The question is how Web tricks and theatrics are understood outside of the cultures that experience them regularly.

First, it is worth painting a picture of global civil society's serious and playful practice of creating epistemological moments, and the weight of the stakes involved. Many of the sites that spoof other sites, either for a day or on a more permanent basis, have been created by critical artist-activists, a portion of global civil society that meets at events like Ars Electronica in Graz, Austria and the Next Five Minutes in Amsterdam. They engage in playful, if serious, 'antics' to draw attention to the issues and to themselves. The politicised spoofing of the George W. Bush site (gwbush.com), World Trade Organization (gatt.org), Jorg Haider's political party site (fpo.at) and the Vatican, for example, have been timed to coincide with media attention accorded to the individuals or organizations. For instance, Vaticano.org was mounted just prior to the great year of Christian celebrations in Rome. Like the gay pride movement on parade in Rome, the rogue sites seek presence in the media space alotted to the celebrations. Attention is meant to spark civil debate. It is also serious fun.

However 'seriously playful' or 'playfully serious' such interventions have been in the past, "roguing" has not triggered an 'infowar', with all of a country's major sites taken down, serious journalistic content changed (i.e., regional peace negotiations), and hate speech enlivening it all in the background. Aliyev.com, which rogues the name of the Azeri president through a technique called 'domain name fudging,' incited a major Web response, which (to the protagonists and antagonists) was a grave matter.

The Western, Webby tricks of the trade are problematic export products to the Caucasus. As with other 'technology tranfers', the Web tactics have unexpected applications and consequences. Californian and New York City Web histrionics, and the tools and tactics of portions of global civil society, do not normally come with hate speech attachments. Aliyev.com, however, was not understood, culturally, as a rogue Web site. It was not understood as one unnamed, attention-seeking voice among many in the overall media and debate space devoted to Azeri-Armenian relations. It was understood as a disinformation site that had to be taken out.

As with other 'technology tranfers', Web tactics have unexpected applications and consequences.

The big issue, raised by exported tactics, concerns the interpretation of the stakes of Web games in different contexts, and whether the 'usual' tactical input of global civil society in local and regional causes is always a good idea. In the age of the global 'information society,' with global civil society at the helm, I have often wondered whether one can keep one's local or regional cause to one's local or regional self. Does Internetted global civil society take over the local or regional issue, swarming in with information, and protestors, and thereby 'globalising' the issue, perhaps much to the chagrin of the locals? Global civil society, in other words, may have a dilemma concerning 'intervention as usual', especially when it "ups the ante" from information campaigns to DDoS attacks. The dilemma surfaces when these attacks occur against the background of hatred and repression, and in countries that may not be in tune with artist-activist Web culture.

The Zapatista conflict is instructive here for the sake of contrast. Texan information disseminators incited a global response to the Chiapas plight, which included DDoS attacks on the Mexican government's site, organized by artist-activists, New York City's Electronic Disturbance Theater and FloodNet [11]. Arguably, the infowar, including the attacks, aggravated the situation not only in cyberspace, but also on the ground with a harsher (but also well-documented) 'response' by the Mexican government [12]. Like the Tex-Mex connection a well-organized and well-equipped Armenian diaspora, especially in North America, has undertaken a global informational campaign for change in Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabagh. The DDoS attacks by the Azeri groups (non-artist-activists, by the looks of it) may have aggravated the climate for peace, but the negotiations were said to be unaffected. Thus the 'real world effects' have not been great as of yet [13].

A second contrast between the two situations is worth noting in the context of technology transfer and the culture that may or may not come with it. In the Zapatista situation, the gateway to information about the Chiapas struggle was effectuated, among others, by one Harry Cleaver at the University of Texas at Austin, with the domain (and discussion list with postings by Zapatista Subcommander Marcos) at utexas.edu. To find out who owns aliyev.com, one must turn to whois.net to learn that it’s a group calling itself "Ararat Technologies," named after Armenian culture's beloved mountain, in Turkey. The Californian group otherwise prefers to remain unnamed.

Anonymous publication, including pseudonymic publication, is a tactic that (among other things) allows both no names and big names to have their say without resorting to 'reputational structure' and affiliation. The practice is employed to allow the words to stand for themselves; if well-publicized, as is often the point, the act of nameless publication is meant to make the words more intriguing for the guessing game about authorship that may ensue. While it has waned in print, the practice of anonymous publication (together with self-publication) has seen a revival with the Web, contributing for some to the Web's manifestation as rumor mill.

No-name publication (literally or less so) has been celebrated by early adopters as a defining feature of the Web. The dearth of named sources is beloved, for, as early adopters had it, "information must be free" of copyright and fees in the "great conversation" unburdened by authorial reputation and affiliation. Hypertext theorists have gone so far as to speak of collaborative authoring, even the surfer (not the writer) as the author of 'the story'. Whatever the explanation and theory, the Web opens up questions of the value of 'less-authored' information, and artist-activists and others continually prepare the ground for those questions to be asked. Are they being asked in the Caucasus? And, if so, what kinds of answers are given?

Against the backdrop of hate speech as well as peace negotiations, this particular infowar finds a basis in local (and perhaps pre-Web) interpretations of the meaning and significance of rogue Web publication and source anonymity.

In the Armenian-Azeri infowar roguing and source anonymity seemed to be understood in terms of 'disinformation authorship' - not Webby authorship, Web games, or artistic activism. As such it seemed to justify in the minds of Green Revenge and Hijak Team 187 an attack on aliyev.com and others. While the Armenian National Institute and the Armenian American Assembly also were targets of DDoS attacks, Green Revenge's timing and justification were evidence of a reaction to the rogue, aliyev.com. Thus, against the backdrop of hate speech as well as peace negotiations, this particular infowar finds a basis in local (and perhaps pre-Web) interpretations of the meaning and significance of rogue Web publication and source anonymity. It appears that a cultural acceptance of the tactic of roguing with source anonymity, and a cultural understanding of the stakes of such Web 'antics', never left the West. In short, for all their knowledge of the tactics, Green Revenge and Hijak Team 187 didn't grasp the culture.

Neither did certain official institutions in the Caucasus. They upped the ante. They raised the stakes by referring to breeches of 'human rights' and 'freedom of information' - weighty language that ascribes to Web antics more gravitas than they normally are granted in the West. (A western NGO didn't help matters by calling in the FBI's Computer Crime Squad.) Instead of understanding that certain groups are new to the culture of Web tactics, and thereby respond inappropriately to a rogue, both the local institutions and the U.S.-based NGO introduced a new, harsher Web culture for Armenia and Azerbaijan. Does this culture feed conflict, indeed furnish it with more of the trappings of 'infowar' and perhaps worse? Here it is worth recalling that the only mitigating voice in the conflict was the Arminco provider, one 'Webby' local who downplayed the events as not serious.

In conclusion it may be pointed out that 'global civil society' in Armenia and Azerbaijan has not been vocal about the hacktivist tactics and conduct. It also has not been articulate about the implications of the introduction of a harsher Web culture to the newly Internetted region. A western "culture of Web tactics" - that is, the use of the technology with understandings of Western cultures of use and codes of conduct - could well be an agenda item at the next "Internet & Society" conference in the Caucasus.End of Article

About the Author

Richard Rogers is editor of Preferred Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web (2000). He recently was Design & Media Research Fellow at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, and Lecturer in Computer Related Design at the Royal Academy of Art, London. He is now teaching at the University of Amsterdam, where he also received his Ph.D. in Science & Technology Studies. His dissertation concerned the history of Channel Tunnel system design controversies. Some of this work is described in his other book Technological Landscapes.
E-mail: rogers@chem.uva.nl

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to acknowledge valuable discussions with Garegin Chookaszian, Darius Cuplinskas, Jonathon Peizer and David Stubbs, all affiliated with the Open Society Institute, New York/Budapest.

Notes

1. Cf. H. Cleaver, "The Zapatistas and the Electronic Fabric of Struggle," html version of his piece in J. Holloway and E. Peláez (editors), 1998. Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico. London: Pluto Press, at www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/zaps.html; D. Ronfeldt and J. Arquilla, 1998. The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, at www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR994/MR994.pdf; and, J. Arquilla and D. Ronfeldt, 1997. "The Advent of Netwar," In: J. Arquilla and D. Ronfeldt, In Athena's Camp. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, at www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR880/contents.html

2. http://greenrevenge.domainvalet.dom

3. http://www.hijak.net

4. According to the Zerkalo Daily, the sites taken down were: www.armenian-genocide.com, www.aic.net, www.amnic.net, www.arminco.com, www.aaainc.org, www.armic.com, www.armenia.online.com, www.ancaer.org, www.armeniaemb.org, www.anca.org, www.asbarez.com, www.karabakh.com, www.armenia.com, and www.armen-info.com

5. According to its site at www.aaainc.org, the Armenian American Assembly dedicates itself to these issues: "Affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, Restrictions on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan, The Karabagh peace process, U.S. assistance to Armenia and Karabagh."

6. http://tolfast.net/feb00/nagorno.html

7. The Liazor site is archived at http://www.hackzone.ru/hacked/2000/february/www.azer.com/

8. The prospect of new governmental transparency - e.g., the publication of governmental employees' salaries and property holdings - did raise some interest in the World Bank project.

9. See the author's "Introduction" to R. Rogers (editor), 2000. Preferred Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Editions.

10. S. Wyatt, 1999. "They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach," paper presented at the International Conference of the Society for the Social Study of Science (4S), San Diego, Calif. (October).

11. http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ecd.html One of the representatives of the Electronic Disturbance Theater draws a careful line between artistic activism and terrorism, as quoted in Network World (1 November 1999), at ttp://www.nwfusion.com/news/0111vigcyber.html: "Remember," Dominguez says, "FloodNet was not created by hackers or terrorists, but by artists and activists who wanted to create a simple point and click tool that would bring civil disobedience to the HTML community."

12. This is a controversial point for the situation of the ground before the DDoS attacks was abhorent. But it is instructive to turn to the chronology of events, and note the timing of certain interventions by the Mexican government in the Chiapas region. In this case, as in that of the Armenian-Azeri infowar, certain parties may be said to overreact to Web games.

13. 'Real world effects' is a phrase often employed by the representatives of rtmark.com, a leading rogue Web site maker.


Editorial history

Paper received 9 August 2000; accepted 29 August 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

"Internet & Society" in Armenia and Azerbaijan? Web Games and a Chronicle of an Infowar by Richard Rogers
First Monday, volume 5, number 9 (September 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_9/rogers/index.html





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