Iran building towards a social media/internet black out?

Opposition supporters clash with riot police in Tehran, 20 June 2009

Opposition supporters clash with riot police in Tehran, 20 June 2009

In case you have been living in a cave for the last week or so (or have been otherwise cut off from communication not just by the Internet but around the water cooler, phone and everything else) here’s what is going on. There was an election, and a bunch of people were not happy about the results of the election. Instead of sitting around whining about hanging chads and complaining to their friends over a beer about how their party was robbed…the people of Iran are staging massive protests. Unlike here in the US where they use non-lethal weapons (Pellets, tear gas, firehoses) first…the Iranian protesters are being shot, beaten with clubs, tear gassed, you name it.

Sad to say but this is not the first time protesters somewhere in the world have been killed for standing up for something they believe in (coughChinacough) but the way the world is seeing and hearing about the whole thing is something considerably different than before. It isn’t the news media bringing us what is going on. It is social media.

If you look at Twitter, #iranelection has been the top search term in the right hand column for some time. Why is that? because the word on the protests and violence is coming out of Iran via Twitter like water out of a pregnant hippo about to give birth…fast and nasty. For example, when I hit search for #iranelection, I turned away to take a sip of my coffee and by the time I turned back there were 945 more tweets on #Iranelection.

Twitter isn’t the only place where social media is getting out information on what is going on inside Iran. Youtube is another huge asset to the protesters. The one video that I would argue has made monumental impact that I think might change the way we see social media forever…is the video of Neda. In this very graphic video you can see her die and hear someone screaming her name, and this young girl’s name has become a rallying cry. The report is that she was shot by a government sniper. I will warn you again this video is VERY graphic.
BTW props to Youtube for not removing the videos that are coming out of Iran for their graphic nature and for making sure they stay live and visible to the public.

So obviously social media has been in the spotlight with everything that has been going on in Iran, it is being used in revolutionary ways…and in the hands of millions it might be as effective as the guns in the hands of the government that they oppose. At what other time in history have we seen from the personal view the way we are seeing now. The words are frightening, the images mind numbing in their horror…and it is being brought to us by the small devices in the hands of those in the streets…not the major media. It is almost like guerrilla media warfare…and honestly? I am really happy to see the social media sites being used for something bigger than one person looking for a late night hookup, or tweeting that their cat just threw up on their favorite shoes.

Watching the #iranelection tweets and the videos, you have to wonder how many of these tweets and posts are really legit, because there has to be someone who is just the type of internet troll that wants to glom on to all the attention this situation is getting. Oh and let’s not forget those slimy internet marketers that are trying to sell you everything from false life insurance to penis enlargement that will start  to use the words Iran and what ever else they can think of to draw attention to their sites. But enough about those jerks. (Really, you people are jerks and need to go crawl back under your rocks)

And I also wonder how many people are really paying attention to what they are re-tweeting or pasting into their profiles when you see them mixing up Iran and Iraq, or any number of other causes…kind of missing the point of what is going on over there. There is a natural dumbing down that seems to occur as things are passed along in social media, people copy and paste with little thought. That is something for a whole different post though.

Moving on… Recently a couple of my friends on Facebook recently changed their status to read something like this:

Do you Twitter? If so, set your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches. The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut Iranians’ access to the internet down. Cut & paste & pass it on.

My first thought was hey what an interesting way to show solidarity with free speech in these other countries right? Then I got to thinking about it and does it really matter if we change our locations in our information? Is it anything more than symbolic? While I am for showing support in any way you can for a cause you believe in…if you think that is how they are finding the people who are tweeting or posting video? You should take a look around at how that technology actually works.

When I think about censorship and monitoring of the internet usually what comes to my mind is China or North Korea…they really do that that whole locked down tight thing pretty well. Reporters can’t even get into North Korea without being arrested. China censors  Google and just about everything else, and effectively too.

It appears that Iran has built one of the most advanced systems for monitoring all online traffic, with the help of technology built by Nokia and Siemens. It is reported to be one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet, allowing it to examine the content of individual online communications on an enormus scale. One of the things this includes is called deep packet inspection.

DPI is a system that examines the header and the data part of a packet as it passes an inspection point, searching for protocol non-compliance or predefined criteria to decide if the packet can pass or if it needs to be routed somewhere else. Basically it will allow the Iranian government to monitor the internet at a choke point and not only block communication but to use it to gather information about individuals. Oh and just in case you were wondering…there are also reports that they can also alter  what they are looking at for disinformation purposes. So when suddenly the tweets and the videos of violence and fear stop and the information is suddenly all rainbows and butterflies…and puppies? Well then you should kind of figure the great Iran Firewall has launched.

What they are coming up with looks to be even more advanced than what China or Korea have. That is pretty scary. You can read more about the new Iran Firewall efforts on the Wall Street Journal.

So, try as you might to help out the tweeters, bloggers and videographers, the new firewall that is lurking really makes that impossible. BTW deep packet inspection has come up in the US before too. But I digress…

Freedom of speech, and the speed of speech with social media…is a dangerous thing to any regime, it is the weapon of the masses more so than firearms could ever be. A gun or a bomb in the hands of a protestor might make people around them scared, might kill even a hundred people…but?…the shots fired in videos where you watch a 16 year old girl die, the 140 character messages screaming for help into cyberspace, those will stir the world.

So the question is, even if Iran shuts off the internet now…silences all the videos and voices in the form of Tweets…is it already too late? Seems the cat (the rabid, blood soaked, angry angry cat) is out of the bag already, and even if you silence the voices within Iran on the world wide web, others have already taken up their cries.

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