Cyber Rebellions: The Online Struggle for Openness

Authoritarian regimes learned to fear the rise of the internet because it spurred an online community who encouraged information sharing relatively free from government oversight. However, the West—the creator of the internet—is retreating from openness in cyberspace because of strong arguments made by defense specialists about cyber vulnerabilities and because of cyber meddling by foreign actors, most clearly the Russian Government. This article argues that combatting the rise of authoritarianism, particularly in Russia, requires embracing the strategic advantages openness provides for democracy. The article outlines the ordeal of “cyber rebellions” across the globe and closes with a discussion about the dangers of bowing to pressure to create borders in cyberspace, pointing out that inspiring a retreat from openness is precisely the intent of the authoritarian regimes who most fear it.

Matthew J. Flynn
September 21, 2018

In the wake of the FBI’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian businesses, Americans gained a clearer picture of Russia’s social-media campaign designed to interfere in the 2016 United States presidential election. U.S. citizens are looking for assurances that this activity will not go unpunished and will not happen again. However, any response requires accepting that Russian actors will remain in U.S. cyberspace. Learning how to cope with this fact and how it favors U.S. interests and standing in the world is the key response to the Russian cyber attacks in 2016 and in the future.

With the emergence and expansion of internet connectivity, authoritarian regimes across the globe found themselves on the defensive as access to information fostered “cyber rebellions” and online activism threatened strongman rule. After a time, observers began to question the promise of cyber rebellions because dual-use information and communication technologies also enabled state oversight of digital networks.1 Eventually, this critique of cyber rebellions was overshadowed by defense specialists decrying vulnerabilities in cyberspace. But the voices demanding better cybersecurity overlook the premise that democratic norms online are a counterweight to authoritarianism.2 These critiques ultimately led to a retreat from “openness” in cyberspace, abandoning a digital space that promotes an online community that embraces the democratic value of connecting people by allowing information exchange free of government oversight. This article argues that governments must defend and advance openness, not only because it encourages democracy, but because it can rebuke and put back on the defensive those who oppose democratic norms. The pursuit of openness can coexist with a drive for better security by rejecting a militarism that disregards the advent of a shared online world in the name of fighting the cyberwar. This recalcitrant thinking diminishes the prospect for cyber rebellions to produce a cognitive online offensive, serving as a means for those backing liberal governments to secure a perma- nent, asymmetrical, strategic advantage in cyberspace.

Cyber Rebellions Brewing

Russia and Estonia (2007)

Russia fears this potential for cyber rebellions because of its 2007 experience in Estonia, where a separatist movement gave rise to a confrontation that occurred almost exclusively online. By the time the confrontation dwindled a month later, the Russian Government learned to pay close attention to the danger posed by that type of engagement.

A series of DDOS assaults beset Estonia in late April 2007, ostensibly in retaliation for an insult to Russian honor when Estonia moved a statue commemorating Soviet casualties from World War II. In the course of three weeks, several state agencies and a number of banks faced internet service disruptions. The Russian Government denied involvement, leaving non-state actors such as organized crime to take the blame.3 If indeed the effort was led by non-state actors, it was one that enjoyed the support of a large number of Russian activists functioning in a “Russian-language blogosphere” who rallied to attack Estonia.4

This cyber strike bolstered the cause of ethnic Russians within Estonia in a way that avoided using threats of violence as a means to settle disputes; by admission of the Russian government, the blogosphere acted independently of Russian authorities. Additional consequences could grow from a connected populace now willing to take traditional foreign policy matters into its own hands: perhaps a wave of discontent could spark regime change within Russia, much like the Color Revolutions in the neighboring states of Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005).5 After 2012, President Vladimir Putin took steps to curb online activism within Russia to help blunt such a reaction.6

The Middle East and North Africa (2009-present)

The power of cyber rebellions was next demonstrated in the Middle East. In June 2009, domestic unrest emerged in Iran as street protests became “the first major world event broadcast worldwide almost entirely via social media.”7 The reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provoked a wave of discontent among many who believed the government rigged the outcome in his favor. Charges of election irregularities drew scant attention from those in power; their nonchalance sparked even more outcry, leading to protests in the capital, Tehran. Soon, rival candidates for the presidency led opposition rallies and thousands of people occupied the capital, displaying the green color of the main opposition party. Demonstrations led to clashes and the ensuing violence led to deaths. Ahmadinejad would keep his seat as president, but not before an image enshrined this “Green Revolution” as something different from previous displays of dissent, when government repression had led to bloodshed that helped squelch unrest in several provinces just before the election. This time, when a female protester died in the streets, her death appeared on YouTube, moving the event beyond Tehran’s control and into the public sphere of the internet.8 The Iranian affair now had a global witness, and yet this cyber rebellion failed to change the government.

In 2010, Tunisia witnessed unrest in the form of a movement seeking increased political representation on behalf of its citizens. In a matter of days, the forces of reaction proved incapable of stemming the tide. In the “Jasmine Revolution,” online activity played a role with social media transforming a movement from a local disturbance into a nation-wide push for reform. Shortly before a protester set himself on fire in December 2010, Tunisia’s large Facebook population trafficked a WikiLeaks document that detailed the opulence of the sitting regime, with its decadence underscored in the story of the president’s son-in-law feeding his pet tiger four chickens per day.9 This self-indulgence, and the elites’ apparent indifference to widespread poverty in Tunisia, accelerated a movement that would go on to topple long-time dictator President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in less than a month’s time. The chain of events was sufficient to entice outside observers to proclaim not just success, but the birth of a movement sweeping the Middle East: an “Arab Spring” that shook autocratic regimes throughout the region.10

Egypt tested this formula next, and again, the power of the masses fueled by social media first challenged the sitting authority and then broke it altogether. President Hosni Mubarak initially dismissed the rebellion, but as the outcry grew and Cairo’s streets filled with protesters, he fled the capital. The timeframe was as shocking as the result: a 30-year strongman giving up power in just 18 days. Experts weighed the impact of social media but found it wanting.11 Online access may have bolstered the organizers, but the uprising continued even when the government suspended internet service.

Popular elections in Egypt brought to power a political party incapable of ruling effectively. The Muslim Brotherhood soon fell from favor and a military counter-revolution ensued, facilitating a rush back to power of the old elite. The military regime quickly established control after deposing President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, with widespread persecution of opposition figures a hallmark of the new order. The military government also sought to suppress the very element that may have initiated regime change—social media—and the government began to implement online surveillance to help it prevent acts of “terrorism.”12

Other Arab states braced for shockwaves. A few nations, such as Bahrain, appear to have successfully clamped down on protesters online or otherwise. Elsewhere, upheaval dwarfed any push toward democracy. Civil war engulfs Syria still, while lawlessness has descended on Libya, suggesting a troubled future. Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. Tunisia remains the “only full-fledged Arab democracy” to emerge from the cyber rebellions associated with the Arab Spring.13

Ukraine (2013-14)

The limited results in the Middle East and North Africa do not mean cyber rebellions are faltering. In February 2014, Ukrainians forced their president to leave office. Even with a watchful Russia on its border, Ukraine was not immune to internet-related activism. Social media surfaced as a means to return to and promote democracy; to this end, thousands of Ukrainians used mobile phones to send pictures, exchange tweets, and report developments on Facebook as they strove to depose now-former president Viktor Yanukovych.14 This result came after more than a year of tension, which peaked in the wake of the government’s legal action in January 2014 to restrict media, particularly online. Then came a government tilt toward Russia in an attempt to restore economic confidence. When protests continued, Yanukovych looked to use force, which ended in bloodshed that marked the beginning of the “Euromaidan Movement,” an alignment of Ukraine with Europe backed by popular mandate and ending in the removal of Yanukovych. A rapid and largely legitimate election followed, allowing Ukrainians to peacefully consolidate a government.

Ukraine’s deposed leader fled to Moscow, proffering enough justification for Putin to inject Russian influence into Ukraine to preclude a social movement insistent on indulging in democracy.

Strongmen Re-emerge

These movements were enough to sound alarm bells among authoritarian regimes. Given the threat of cyber rebellions, strongmen naturally acted to curb the utility of online platforms. Coopting the medium at home proved easy via spyware, firewalls, and other means of censorship.15 However, these defensive moves were not enough. Strongmen fear digital connectivity and have gone on the offense in cyberspace to withstand and discredit the powerful means of social activism that online use represents.

The strongman counter-offensive has succeeded in many ways as the threat of cyberattacks fuels a cyber arms race. In this “security dilemma” atmosphere, democracy loses as nations militarize the digital domain so they may control the cyber capabilities of nonstate actors.16 Global powers—both democracies and dictatorships—undermine online openness to rebuff online attack. But a shared space unimpeded by borders allows users to initiate “friendly conquest” in the cyber domain.17 Cyber rebellions erupt when users are denied access to something they value. Vigilance on behalf of openness generates a means of online struggle over the values inherent in connectivity.

Those fearing online vulnerabilities are calling for cyber sovereignty in the US and pushing Washington to give up on that global appeal of openness.18 In particular, advocates of a “cyber Westphalian” norm decry cyber vulnerabilities to demand the US retreat from open borders in cyberspace.19 The historical reference badly misses the mark. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established national borders in the name of centralized, sovereign state controls; there was no democratic tradition established at Westphalia. To reference this historical precedent suggests many in the US implicitly endorse strongman rule abroad to better shield Americans from both material and intellectual losses in cyberspace.

While the threats are real and countermeasures are needed to blunt theft and espionage in cyberspace, such actions must stop short of allowing those opposing openness a reprieve by granting cyber sovereignty. Rather, democratic states must press their advantage in cyberspace. In Russia, Putin governs a nation plagued by fissures he strives to mask from the outside world. Online realities threaten to increase these tensions. The Russian blogosphere has long been a volatile means of information exchange and hardly answers to Putin, who has acted to block VPN traffic into Russia altogether with only partial success.20 His cause of discrediting such outlets is aided by U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s frequent declarations that the free press in the US amounts to no more than “fake news” when the media critiques his actions. This moniker means voices within Russia cannot look to the US as a model for the free exchange of information that paves the way to democracy.

Embracing Openness to Promote Democracy

Tolerating cyber rebellions at home and encouraging them abroad can strengthen democracy. For this to happen, Americans must allow Russian voices into their cyberspace, though not into their election process. Voters must learn to distinguish fake from genuine online entities; false names and personas must be identified, made public, and expunged.21 Legitimate Russian outlets must be identified and at least understood as voices of the Russian Government that seek to weaken U.S. standing globally to serve Putin’s interests. Conversely, the U.S. could mount such an offensive itself by advocating on behalf of voices in the Russian blogosphere and facilitating VPN activity into Russia.22 Americans must stop demonizing opposing voices with the mindless accusation of fake news. Online exchange serves democratic activism more than authoritarian control, and therefore serves U.S. interests both as a nation state and as a leader of the free world.

Advocating cyber rebellions can strengthen online platforms when unhindered by government controls. A user is only vulnerable to an exchange of information if one fears the message. Americans have no reason to fear the message; instead, it is authoritarian regimes that have reason to fear online traffic and free exchange. When the creators of the internet doubt the value of exchange, they forfeit their natural advantage.

Those unafraid of connectivity must welcome it by allowing contrary, even inimical, views into their cyberspace because shared cyberspace is not just an American arena, but a global reality. This open and free cognitive space, accessible to all, will allow democratic states to promote their ideals in cyberspace, putting authoritarian regimes on the defensive.

In this light, cyber rebellions represent a trusted military maxim: building a wall and laying in wait for an attack is a sure way to lose the fight. It is better to be on the offensive. From this old point of reference one must come to a new one, and that is belief in the world that connectivity has created. Through cyber rebellions, nations are being tested as the online world goes through a period of contestation, between being defined by commonality or by fear. Given the origins of cyberspace as an arena in which to freely trade information, and the popularity of social media as the calling card of that purpose, optimism dwarfs despair. Technology has wrought a good, a global community is upon us, and opposing cyber rebellions will remain a futile effort should those believing in the power of openness hold strong. It is a good time to practice and believe in democracy. Now more than ever, one must post, tweet, and email on behalf of freedom world-wide.

Matthew J. Flynn is Professor of Military History at Marine Corps University, where his interests include cyber warfare, great power status, preemptive war, and piracy. He is the author of numerous publications, including a co-authored study entitled Washington & Napoleon: Leadership in the Age of Revolution and the book First Strike: Preemptive War in Modern History. Professor Flynn also operates the website, which is dedicated to examining the new conditions shaping global conflict. The views in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Marine Corps or the United States Department of Defense.



1 How the online community can function independently from government control got its start in Howard Rheingold’s, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, 1993), 9–10. He wrote during a period of optimism about online realities serving the rise of democracy across the world. When that optimism faded, so did the embrace of cyber as a means to democratic ascendancy. Most authors withhold judgement: see Jay Blumler and Stephen Coleman, The Internet and Democratic Citizenship: Theory, Practice and Policy (New York: Cambridge University, 2009), 9; Larry Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 3 (July 2010), 70; and recently, Vincent Mosco, Becoming Digital: Towards a Post-Internet Society (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2017), 14.

2 Those sounding the alarm include Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to do About It (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), xi–xii; Fred Kaplan, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2016), 272-273, and Ben Buchanan, The Cybersecurity Dilemma: Hacking, Trust, and Fear Between Nations (New York: Oxford University, 2017), 3. Some warn that too much alarm about cyber threats increases security risks, but still warn about online vulnerabilities: see Thomas Rid, Cyber War Will Not Take Place (New York: Oxford University, 2013), xiv; Jason Healy, ed., A Fierce Domain: Conflict in Cyberspace, 1986-2012 (Arlington, VA: Cyber Studies Association, 2013), Intro.; David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age (New York: Crown, 2018), Intro.

3 Alexander Klimburg, “Mobilizing Cyber Power,” Survival 53, no. 1 (2011), 49; Alison Lawlor Russell, Cyber Blockades (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 2014), 76-77; and “International Cyber Incidents: Legal Considerations,” (Talinn, Estonia: Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, 2010), 23, 31.

4 Stephen Herzog, “Revisiting the Estonian Cyber Attacks: Digital Threats and Multinational Responses,” Journal of Strategic Security 4, no. 2 (Summer 2011), 51. For “Russian-language blogosphere,” see Gadi Evron, “Battling Botnets and Online Mobs: Estonia’s Defense Efforts During the Internet War,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (Winter/Spring 2008), 123.

5 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2014), 101, 115; Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press, 2013), 343.

6 Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), xi.

7 Jared Keller, “Evaluating Iran’s Twitter Revolution,” The Atlantic, 18 June 2010. Even with this admission, The Atlantic denied that what unfolded in Tehran amounted to a “Twitter revolution” because “Twitter failed as an organizational tool.” Other experts are more sanguine and stress the role of digital media as one of several key factors in causing social movements during the Arab Spring. See Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain, Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring (New York: Oxford University, 2013), 13.

8 See YouTube video, “Young Girl Being Killed by Plain-clothes,” Internet Archive, accessed 24 March 2015,; no longer a viable link. See the still active Twitter hashtag #neda,, accessed 1 April 2018.

9 Judy Bachrach, “WikiHistory: Did the Leaks Inspire the Arab Spring?” World Affairs (July/Aug 2011), 35. According to a UN study, Facebook “user penetration” in Tunisia stood at 22 percent in 2011, a large percentage for a Middle Eastern state. See “Civil Movements: The Impact of Twitter and Facebook,” Arab Social Media Report 1, no. 2 (Dubai School of Government, May 2011), 11.

10 Lisa Anderson, “Demystifying the Arab Spring,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (May/June 2011); Uri Dadush and Michele Dunne, “American and European Reponses to the Arab Spring: What’s the Big Idea?,” The Washington Quarterly 34, no. 4 (Fall 2011), 131; and Colin H. Kahl and Marc Lynch, “U.S. Strategy after the Arab Uprisings: Toward Progressive Engagement,” The Washington Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Spring 2013), 40.

11 The Arab Spring and internet functionality, in particular social media, draws mixed reviews as to whether this technology explains political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, and if the medium created something more than just a shock to the region. For the most part, western observers discount the impact. See Jon B. Alterman, “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” The Washington Quarterly, 14 September 2011, 103-104; and “New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring,” Peaceworks (United States Institute of Peace), 3. For a more sympathetic assessment that said the influence was significant, see “Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter,” Arab Social Media Report 1, no. 2 (Dubai School of Government, May 2011), 24.

12 Freedom House, “Tightening the Net: Governments Expand Online Controls” Freedom on the Net (2014), 269. See the study concluding that a company called Hacking Team based in Milan has authored Remote Control System (RCS) spyware designed to enable government surveillance that is probably in use in Egypt. “Mapping Hacking Team’s ‘Untraceable’ Spyware,” Research Brief 33 (The Citizen Lab, University of Toronto: February 2014), 1.

13 Freedom House, “Discarding Democracy: Return of the Iron Fist,” Freedom in the World (2015), 6-7.

14 Freedom House (2014), 828, 834.

15 Morgan Marquis-Boire, “For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying” (Citizen Lab: University of Toronto, 1 May 2013), 113.

16 Aaron F. Brantly, “The Cyber Losers,” Democracy and Security (April 2014), 142.

17 Martin C. Libicki, “Conquest in Cyberspace: National Security and Information Warfare” (New York: Cambridge University, 2007), 4, 230. Libicki’s “friendly conquest” amounts to an ideologically driven conflict about values online, which John Arquilla calls a “netwar” waged by a “global civil society.” See Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, “Cyberwar is Coming!” Comparative Strategy 12, no. 2 (Spring 1993), 144-45.

18 John D. Negroponte and Samuel J. Palmisano, “Defending an Open, Global, Secure, and Resilient Internet,” Independent Task Force Report No. 70, Council on Foreign Relations (2013) 4, 5; Keir Giles and Andrew Monaghan, “Legality in Cyberspace: An Adversary View,” The Letort Papers (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Press, March 2015), 15-16. For China, see Ye Zheng, “From Cyberwarfare to Cybersecurity in the Asia-Pacific and Beyond,” trans. by Yang Fan, China and Cybersecurity: Espionage, Strategy, and Politics in the Digital Domain (New York: Oxford University, 2015), 131-32. For Russia, see Julien Nocetti, “Contest and Conquest: Russia and Global Internet Governance,” International Affairs 91, no. 1 (2015), 112.

19 Chris C. Demchak and Peter Dembrowski, “Rise of a Cybered Westphalian Age,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2011), 35, 37. Others concerned about the sovereignty of the nation-state prevailing in the cyber age include Nazli Choucri, Cyberpolitics in International Relations (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 12; and Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg, “Territorial Sovereignty and Neutrality in Cyberspace,” International Law Studies 89 (US Naval War College, Study 123, 2013), 140.

20 See VPN Golden Frog’s refusal to “comply with Russian censorship of the Internet,” a declaration released in the wake of Russia’s law requiring VPNs to block access to sites banned by the Russian Government. “Russia’s VPN Law Goes into Effect, Impact Use of VPN Services,” Sunday Yokubaitis, 1 November 2017,

21 Facebook announced this step in April 2018. See Mark Zuckerberg, post, 6 April 2018, /posts/10104784125525891.

22 The private sector already mounts this charge. See “How to Unblock VPNs in Russia and China,” vpnMentor, Blog,