Iran Election: Online Support for Dissidents

Iran's government tries to block dissidents' Web access, but online allies help.

June 15, 2009, 3:36 PM

June 19, 2009 — -- The revolution, to borrow from the old saying, may not be televised, at least in the way one might expect. But the violence in Iran following last week's election is being tweeted, blogged, streamed and posted on countless Web sites despite government censorship attempts.

Online support for Iranian dissidents has spread around the world, even as Iran's leaders warn of consequences if unrest continues following last week's election.

Twitter users worldwide have changed their home cities to Tehran to provide cover for protesters there who have been trying to get out scraps of information out. Others are configuring their computers to serve as relay points for dissidents trying to communicate online with the outside world. Google and Facebook have rushed out services in Farsi.

The dissidents are staying in touch with the outside world, despite the Iranian government's efforts to stop them.

A Web site called TehranLive posted vivid photographs of protests in the streets there, with commentary in broken English.

"This Web site is banned in Iran by government since three hours ago," said a message on the site, dated Saturday afternoon -- but in its June archives, there's newer material, including embedded videos that had been posted on YouTube.

All this went on despite apparent efforts of the Ahmadinejad government to control online traffic as well as mainstream media reports. The Internet is, by definition, diffuse and hard for even the most determined of governments to shut down entirely.

Governments in many countries have the power to block some sites, either by setting up so-called firewalls or by putting pressure on Internet Service Providers to do the job for them.

"They likely have firewalls up to block certain kinds of illicit network traffic," said Rob Enderle, head of the California-based Enderle Group of technology consultants. "They just block the network addresses at the firewalls and the traffic shouldn't be able to pass easily.

But some members of Twitter pointed people in Iran to "proxy" sites -- alternative Web sites, which could be set up anywhere online, through which messages could be sent. Some set up virtual private networks to go around limits set up by authorities in Iran.

"The problem with going against students is that audience kind of knows how to get around the security the Iranian government will use to block traffic," said Enderle.

Officials of two social-networking sites, who asked not to be named, said it was difficult to know how effective any censorship efforts might actually be in Iran. One said it was also risky for them to accuse the Tehran government of trying to shut them down when the government had not publicly said it was trying to do so.

The bottom line, though, was that a substantial amount of traffic was getting through -- though nobody could say what percentage of tweets or posts were being stopped.

"I don't yet have any data to share, but it is fair to say that there was a tremendous amount of activity from Iranian users related to the election," said Barry Schnitt of Facebook. "There seemed to be more activity supporting Mousavi. His biggest pages have more than 50,000 supporters total, while Ahmadinejad's pages are closer to 12,000."

Iran Election Unrest Tweeted, Not Just Televised

ABC's Jim Sciutto, reporting from Tehran, ran into trouble with police when his camera crew shot video with its very visible equipment. But he was able to shoot and send video from his cell phone, talk live on the air, and send messages to his Twitter page.

"We witnessed police spraying pepper gas into the eyes of peaceful female protesters," he said in one tweet.

In another: "Photos show at least 3 people shot and injured. AP photog confirms to ABC he saw one person killed."

Since, even under more peaceful circumstances, the Internet is largely an open, unmoderated forum, many postings were requests for information, and others were probably wrong. But a picture emerged of post-election anger, efforts to quell it notwithstanding.

"It is always a shame when a countries' cultural and political concerns lead to limits being placed on the opportunity for sharing and expression that the Internet provides," said Facebook's Schnitt.

The Associated Press contributed reporting for this story.