Palfrey and Zuckerman now officially “conspirators” against Iran, as if their work needed more praise

Yesterday’s Boston Globe featured an article by Farah Stockman explaining how “under siege at home, Iran’s dissidents draw comfort and ideas from some visionary thinkers based here.”

In the wake of widespread protests in Iran after a disputed presidential election, a mass indictment accused more than 100 Iranian politicians and activists of following the instructions of Sharp, as well as spying for several other US academics, among other charges. So far, about 80 of the accused have received prison sentences, while at least one has been sentenced to death.

The indictment, which appears to target Iranians with connections to the West, has led to soul-searching among some US scholars, many of whom have curtailed communications with Iranian dissidents to avoid putting them in jeopardy. Others, like Sharp, see the charges as a badge of honor, and a sign that their arguments are hitting home. They have no intention of scaling back their activities.

John Palfrey and Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society were two of those indicted (Zuckerman is also a Knight News Challenge Fellow here at the Center for Future Civic Media). Palfrey describes needing to play down his work with Iranians, knowing that ties to the United States is often a shorthand the Iranian government uses to harass or indict protesters.

Palfrey, whose center received State Department funds in 2007 to study the Internet’s impact on democracy, said he has curbed his contacts with people in Iran, so as not to endanger them.

“There is always a risk when studying non-democratic countries … that you may unintentionally harm the people you are talking to,” Palfrey said. “Unfortunately, this is the case in Iran today.”

It places into sharp relief the persistent power of states. The suspicion of state power receded for many after the end of the Cold War and was displaced entirely as genocide became the international relations story of the 90’s and jihadist terrorism that of the ’00’s. But the development of (ostensibly) legal warrantless wiretapping in the United States, multiple countries’ rendition of terror suspects, and British retreat on civil liberties, the story of the 2010’s will be the radical databasing of civil society.

The far left and far right in this country have always agreed on at least this: increased state control over information deteriorates civic connections. And, in this networked age, increased Iranian control over information deteriorates civic connections in America. It’s why groups like the ACLU have such an absolutist view of civil liberty, because loss of liberty in one place really does result in loss of liberty elsewhere.