Recent events in Iran have provided a fascinating example of how the internet is so much part of our lives that any large-scale attempts to control it can threaten a country’s economy.
By now, most people will know the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman who bled to death on the street in Tehran after being shot. Someone filmed her death on a mobile phone and within minutes, emailed it to a friend in the Netherlands. At that point, it became the most serious threat to the Iranian regime for 30 years.
The 40-second video, which is distressing to watch, has been shown with Neda’s face obscured on news channels around the world.
The full, uncensored version can be found here: http:// mashable.com/2009/06/21/neda — but be warned. It is graphic.
Thanks to the internet, Neda has joined the young girl running naked down the road after a Napalm attack in Vietnam and Jan Palach, who burned himself to death in Prague in 1969, as an icon of a world event.
Had it not been for the web, the incident would have remained unreported. Most foreign journalists had been expelled from Iran at the time of her death and the authorities had done their level best to put a stranglehold on other methods of communication.
But the days are long gone when governments could censor events by cutting the long distance phone lines and expelling a few foreigners.
The Iranian authorities have done their best, but in an era when the Governor of California is posting messages on Twitter ( www.twitter.com ) as his private jet makes an emergency landing and Stephen Fry “tweets” about being stuck in a lift, their best is no longer good enough.
Many people ridicule Twitter for its bite-size postings in 140 characters or fewer, but it has done more to shed light on the Iranian crisis than any of the major news organisations — precisely because the people who are posting the information are at the centre of events and the journalists are not.
What has happened in Iran has been a fascinating cyber duel between government and citizens. The authorities have used sophisticated technology to crack down on the transmission of information, but at the same time people have managed to stay one step ahead.
The social networking sites have also helped the protesters. Facebook, for example, launched a version of its site in Persian, precisely to enable people in Iran and outside to communicate.
What’s the point, you may wonder, when the government can simply shut down the site?
The answer again lies in technology. While the authorities can block direct contact between a person’s computer and Facebook, they can do nothing about supporters abroad offering their computers as proxy servers, enabling Iranians to view banned web sites by bouncing the traffic around the globe and stripping out the identifying information. Many people used a service called Tor, which uses hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world to assist anyone who may be the target of web censorship. See it at www.torproject.org .
So why couldn’t the authorities just shut down all internet traffic? The answer is that in doing so, they would choke their own economy by preventing companies from doing business.
China has tried to get around the problem by building its own network and approved web sites, as well as placing filtering software on every computer sold in the country. But there are ways around even that level of censorship.
Of all the communication tools in use, Twitter has been perhaps the most important. That’s because people don’t even have to visit its home page to send a message. A “tweet” can be sent as a text message and read as one. And while there remains the problem of verifying the information independently, it has beaten the traditional news media hands down on this occasion.
Twitter users were even cheeky enough to set up a thread criticising CNN ( www.cnn.com ) for its lack of coverage of Iran. The broadcaster was forced to defend itself in print and online. The times they are a-changing.