Battle for Iran is online as much as on the streets

Web and social media are helping protesters, but government censors are catching up.


That re-Tweet, which originated from a mobile phone, popped up on Atash Yaghmaian's Facebook friend feed about an hour after protests against election results began in Tehran last Saturday. Ms. Yaghmaian lives in New York and keeps in touch with family in Iran through Facebook status updates. But by Sunday morning, the Iranian government had shut off intra-country text messaging – cutting off one more way to Tweet.

On the streets of Tehran, Iranian authorities and protestors clash directly but online, a more slippery cat-and-mouse game is playing out. As fast as tech-savvy Iranians find ways to organize and get information out through mobile phones, the Internet, and social media tools, the Iranian government tracks and shuts them down.

"There's huge internet filtering that we haven't seen before," says Mahmood Enayat, an Iranian doctoral student studying censorship at Oxford University's Internet Institute. "It's scary."

Iran can't shut down the Internet completely – that would hobble the state and economy. But its government can and does use formidable monitoring and filtering technology – facilitated by Nokia-Siemens, according to reports this week – or simply blocks access to websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and dissident blogs.

It can also engage in 'astroturfing,' or flooding the Internet with propaganda blogs masquerading as grassroots support. And it can slow Internet bandwidth to prevent the transmission of mobile phone-recorded video. One such video of the shooting of a young woman called Neda turned her almost instantly into an icon in Iran and around the world.

"As long as you keep getting those videos, Iran will be live on the news," says Mr. Enayat.

Last week, Enayat set up a citizen journalist website called to help spread information about the protests in Iran. It was blocked by Iranian censors within 24 hours, he says. An Iranian journalist and contributor to the site has since been arrested.

"I don't even know how they knew the website existed," Enayat says.

Even as social media tools have helped publicize Iranian protests to the rest of the world, within Iran they could turn out to be double-edged.

In Egypt last year, organizers of the dissident April 6th Movement used Facebook to assemble 10,000-strong rallies, notes Trebor Scholz, an assistant professor who teaches a course on global online activism at the New School University in New York.

But the Egyptian government used Facebook to quell the movement. Facebook was a "convenient tool for the government to map dissenters," Mr. Scholz says.

Still, Iranian bloggers are experienced in bypassing government censorship. And they are helped by a global network of software programmers, hackers, and activists who provide free online tools – encryption, proxy servers, anonymizers, secure social networking platforms – that help circumvent online censors.

But increased government surveillance remains a major stumbling block for Web 2.0 social movements, says Elijah Saxon, a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who helps develop social media alternatives for activist groups.

In the meantime, Enayat and the other editors of continue to sort through the information they get daily from Iran. The site now changes domain names constantly to avoid detection. Until activists find a solution to the government's Internet control, he says, the current protests are a "great learning opportunity … for the future."

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