Iran's Reliance on Twitter
Following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successful re-election last Friday, protests erupted throughout the country, calling for a recount. Protesters believe that the election was rigged, claiming many of Ahmadinejad’s supporters in the last election voted for his opponent, Mir Hossein Moussavi, this time around. The protesters say that the high voter turnout – up by more than 30% since the previous election – is an indication that Iranians wanted to see change in their government. The protests have resulted in reports of injuries, casualties, and riots.
Looking past the validity of the actual results, however, we begin to see the realities of the governmental influence over the Iranian people’s freedom of communication. The government, in an effort to stop large organized demonstrations and dissidence, blocked Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and has disabled SMS text message communication throughout the country.
The administration also restricted international news reporting on the events. Unable to report directly, many mainstream media sites, such as TIME.com and CNN, have received pictures, videos, and news reports from inside Iran, although they acknowledge that they cannot independently confirm these reports. CNN also assures that they will not identify their iReporters that are inside Iran for safety reasons.
News-starved Iranians are now taking advantage of nontraditional outlets to circulate and receive updates from across the country. Due to Twitter’s broadcast capabilities – tweets are far more public than e-mail or Facebook – and it’s ability to be accessed via the Internet and SMS, Twitter has emerged as a leading resource for those individuals wanting to make their voice heard in the chaos.
Although the government blocked the official Twitter site, many proxy sites appeared, allowing users to access the site via other portals and remaining undetected. Now, as the government identifies and blocks many of the proxy servers as well, Iranian Twitterers found a trap door from an unlikely supporter. The Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a Chinese-led effort to evade the Communist censorship in China, is the Iranians’ best hope to accessing blocked Internet sites, according to New York Times contributor Nick Kristof. The Consortium “doesn’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians”, but could potentially resort to limiting the use due to fear of a server overload. On Wednesday, the server experienced over 200 million hits, representing more than 400,000 people.
New questions have arisen out of the Iranian election protests: What is the role of government in overseeing the Internet? Should access to cell phones, the Internet, and other advanced technologies be considered a human right? New Democratic Network founder and Washington politico Simon Rosenberg poses this question in a recent blog post, wondering if political freedom can exist in a civil society without one’s mobile device. The United States has so far been hesitant to take a position on this, although small steps have been made in that direction.
On Monday afternoon, U.S. State Department official Jared Cohen contacted Twitter, asking that they delay the scheduled maintenance on their site, so as not to disrupt the overwhelming quantity of Twitter streams reporting on the riots in Iran. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey agreed to postpone the update until Tuesday afternoon, which equated to 1:30 am on Wednesday in Tehran.
Reporters and politicians alike have taken this action as a sign that the new administration is continuing to embrace the merits of modern technology. This small interference from the State Department speaks volumes about the United States’ commitment to extend the rights of the First Amendment to those outside of the fifty states. There is currently an “Internet freedom initiative” still pending in Congress; if approved it would allot $50 million in the appropriations bill for censorship-evasion technologies, similar to those the Chinese Consortium is using.
The protests in Iran continue, largely with the organizational assistance provided by modern technology. It is uncertain how long Iranians will remain in the streets, but one thing is becoming clear – the face of oppositional demonstration has been forever modified.