Iranians Still Connect To Social-Networking Sites

The Iranian government has been blocking access to YouTube and Twitter. The two sites remain important communication outlets for protesters. That's because people outside Iran have volunteered their time and their computers to keep Iranians connected.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's find out how Iranian protesters are staying connected online. NPR's Laura Sydell explains how Iranians avoid censorship.

LAURA SYDELL: Videos shot on cell phones with handheld cameras are all over the Internet.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

SYDELL: Many links to videos of police and military brutality have been posted on Twitter. Every few seconds dozens of people tweet about the situation in Iran. Many of those tweets are from inside the country, despite government efforts to block twitter.com. Volunteers in the U.S. are helping Iranians link to blocked sites. One volunteer is Anthony Papillon, a software engineer who lives in Oklahoma. He says he was moved by what he saw happening and wanted to help.

Mr. ANTHONY PAPILLON (Software Engineer): To make a difference in people's lives, bring about democracy and change, and really give a people who have been oppressed a voice.

SYDELL: Papillon has let people in Iran use his computer in Oklahoma as a proxy to gain access to Twitter. People in Iran find out about the computer link through word of mouth. In the last 24 hours, the Iranian government discovered Papillon and blocked his computer. But he is part of a network of volunteers. Papillon has given software to other volunteers so they can help the Iranians get to sites that have been blocked by their government.

Mr. PAPILLON: So if they do block one of these servers, then we can bring another one up on another, you know, address or another network and still provide, you know, Twitter feeds from Iran into Twitter.

SYDELL: Iranians have also been able to access Twitter because the site has inspired countless third-party applications, says Jonathan Zittrain.

Professor JONATHAN ZITTRAIN (Harvard University): So there's something called Twitter-fall, that you can look at Twitter as if it's a waterfall and you can see one tweet coming down after another. And if you go there you can see what you could find at Twitter, but you're not visiting twitter.com and that means that these niceties may be harder to arrange blocks for.

SYDELL: Zittrain is co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Zittrain says there have been smaller efforts to set up proxy servers for dissidents in China and Burma. But he says there's been nothing on this scale. Zittrain says it's part technological advances and partly the will of hundreds of thousands of Iranians who were desperate to communicate.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Among a hundred people a couple of them might be nerdy enough to have the connections and the talent and to know where to click in order to run some of these more sophisticated and abstruse circumvention tools.

SYDELL: For the foreigners who are helping the Iranians, there can be some hard moments. Anthony Papillon says he received threats online from people who identified themselves as Iranian officials.

Other volunteers helping protestors have also been threatened. But Papillon believes he's part of a revolutionary moment in the history of technology and democracy.

Mr. PAPILLON: The ordinary everyday person, when they see this can work, I think that is going to be a much bigger threat to oppressive governments, and I think we're going to start seeing a lot more citizen activism towards these governments and we're going to see a lot of - we're going to see a lot of change very quickly, I believe.

SYDELL: Of course that could be an overly optimistic view. Some experts say they could imagine the Iranian government completely shutting down the Internet in Iran. Still, this moment has been an inspiration for activists like Papion all over the world.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

The Challenges To Turning Off The Internet In Iran

Opposition groups in Iran have been using the Internet and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to protest the recent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While the government has cracked down on dissent in the streets, it's having a harder time quieting electronic dissent.

Which raises the question: Why doesn't the Iranian government just turn off the Internet?

Answer: That's easier said than done.

If you wanted to try to control the Internet, you'd need access to a major gateway, a place like the 4545 Building at the University of Washington in Seattle. Down in the sub-basement, bundles of fiber optic cables connect the university's network to the outside world. Daniel Schwalbe, the university's senior security engineer, says those cables represent the university's main electronic hub. If the university wanted to censor students' access to the Internet, he says, this is where it would happen.

Not that it would be easy.

"It's next to impossible to do that reliably," Schwalbe says. "We can put some blocks in; we could block Facebook.com. And I would say that in less than a day they would have access to Facebook again because they would figure out a way around that."

The Way Around

For example, students could connect through proxies — friendly computers on the outside that relay the information. Still, the university would enjoy a kind of chokehold on the Internet. It could make things harder for students by constantly updating the list of blocked Web sites and by dipping into the flow of information coming through the building where Schwalbe works. Not that the University of Washington would want to do that. But the government of Iran does, and it has the means.

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, says Iran — like a university campus — pipes the Internet into the country through a central, controlled gateway. That allows the government to block Web sites and do other kinds of filtering.

But, like resourceful American students in search of Facebook, many Iranians can get around blocks, using proxies and other methods. Complicating matters for the authorities, Zittrain says, is the fact that social networking services tend to be decentralized.

For instance, many people read Twitter posts without ever visiting Twitter.com, because they use the third-party services that have grown up around Twitter. "If the government blocks Twitter.com, the people using these alternatives don't even realize there's been a block," Zittrain says.

What The Government Can Do

The government can still gum up the works. Twitterers can be anonymous, which makes their information hard to authenticate. The opposition has warned of disinformation "tweets," presumably posted by government supporters.

The Iranian opposition also has fewer options in its cat-and-mouse game with the censors because U.S. sanctions have kept some American companies from offering services like instant messaging in Iran. Still, persistent Internet users usually find the information they want; the only sure way to block them is to pull the plug on the whole Internet.

And Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says he doubts the Iranian government wants to do that.

"It's like closing down an essential utility in order to control your populace," O'Brien says. "And that's not a decision you can take lightly."

These days, the Internet is so integrated into industry, government — life itself — that even in Iran, shutting it down is the political equivalent of going nuclear.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.