From translators to tweets, Iran protesters get web support from around the worldBy Barbara Ortutay, AP
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Web support pours out for Iran protesters
NEW YORK — Google and Facebook have rushed out services in Farsi. Twitter users have changed their home cities to Tehran to provide cover for Internet users there. Others have configured their computers to serve as relay points to bypass Iranian censorship. In the aftermath of the disputed Iranian election, Internet companies and individuals around the world have stepped in to help Iranians communicate and organize.
Twitter delayed a scheduled maintenance shutdown so that people could continue to access the microblogging site while scores of Americans set up remote proxy servers so Iranians could access blocked Web sites from inside their country.
All week, Internet users in the U.S. and around the world fixed their eyes on the events unfolding in Iran, the way viewers might have been glued to their television sets 30 years ago. But unlike 30, or even five years ago, this time they could participate.
“Even if we can’t help directly, this is a way of helping indirectly,” said Ian Souter, 24, an unemployed computer animator in Lafayette, Ind.
He and other U.S. Web users set up ways for Iranians to access the Internet using Tor, a service that allows people use the Internet anonymously.
Even the file-sharing site Pirate Bay, best known for its run-ins with the law over copyright infringement, has jumped in with the launch of a network that helps Iranians surf anonymously.
Still, it was difficult to tell just how much of this information was accessible to people inside Iran. The government has restricted communications channels, and cell phone service has been spotty. Many sites were blocked and service has been much slower than normal. Even the use of proxies has grown more difficult as the government finds them, and the country’s Revolutionary Guard has sternly warned people against posting objectionable content on Web sites.
Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Chelmsford, Mass.-based Arbor Networks Inc., said Iran’s telecommunications monopoly has cut back the speed of its Internet connections to the outside world, presumably to increase its ability to filter the data.
The filters appear to target some common ways of evading censorship, including the use of proxies, which allow Iranians to mask sites they are trying to view by having traffic relayed through an innocuous-looking server outside the country. Flash-based video, the kind used by YouTube, is also being stifled, Labovitz said.
One Tehran resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation, said in an e-mail Friday the government has “filtered Facebook but we use proxy.”
“We will protest until they change the results. We hope hope hope,” the resident wrote.
It was such protesters that Twitter users like Arik Fraimovich were hoping to stand behind — if only online.
Fraimovich, a 24-year-old man from Israel who describes himself as a “geek and entrepreneur,” created an application that lets him and other Twitter users easily tint their profile pictures green, the trademark color of reformist candidate Mir Hossain Mousavi.
Because Twitter is public and easy to use from cell phones, it has proven an effective way of spreading messages to the masses, including protesters. But its free-for-all form also lends itself to piles of unverified information — and spam — spreading like wildfire.
Throughout the week, in an attempt to confuse censors, many Twitter users in the U.S. and elsewhere also changed their listed locations and time zones to the Iranian capital. A show of support, it also made it more difficult to see just how many people were tweeting from Iran.
On Facebook, Mousavi supporters organized protests through his public page and posted photos, videos and messages in Farsi. As of Friday, he had more than 66,000 supporters.
The online outpouring has been “hugely important for letting the wider world feel solidarity with the protesters, and in bringing attention to the issues,” said Ethan Zuckerman, research fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. But, he added, “probably not that important in actually mobilizing people on the ground.”
A lot of the information on social sites was coming not directly from inside Iran but from Iranians in the diaspora.
“When we see these movements take over social networks, a lot of (that) is in the U.S.,” Zuckerman said. “A lot of this traffic we are seeing is coming out of Iran in more conventional ways, whether that’s Skype or traditional telephone.”
With a clampdown on the mainstream media, bellwether news outlets like CNN and The New York Times turned to regular people with cameras to report on the news. The BBC and the Voice of American, meanwhile, added more satellites to broadcast into Iran, which had jammed their signals.
YouTube, Google’s video sharing site, became a de facto news channel about the events. A search for “Iran election protest,” for example, yielded nearly 4,000 results on Friday afternoon. YouTube also was directing people to its Citizentube political blog, with frequent updates highlighting clips from Iran.
Late Thursday, both Google and Facebook launched Farsi services, citing the week’s events and the need for Iranians to be able to communicate in their own language.
Facebook, which has been working on translating its site to dozens of languages with help from its users, had more than 400 Farsi speakers submitting thousands of individual translations.
Google, meanwhile, added Farsi to its online translator, calling it “one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicate directly to the world, and vice versa.”
Though it rushed out its Farsi translator, Google said it had treated the events in Iran as it would to any other major world event.
“People are using our services as intended,” spokesman Scott Rubin said.
Earlier in the week, YouTube issued a statement directed at Iran, reiterating that it allows clips depicting violence there and elsewhere because of their journalistic merit. Although it generally bans videos with graphic or gratuitous violence, YouTube has long made exceptions for clips with educational, documentary of scientific value.
Rubin said Google has no way of measuring the amount of material flowing from the protests in Iran. But he called it “ongoing and persistent and an incredibly valuable source of citizen journalism.”
While there have been reports of Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, being blocked, Rubin said the company has not seen any evidence on its end. YouTube, on the other hand, was getting only 10 percent of its normal traffic from Iran, indicating a block.
In China, where the government has long restricted Internet content, YouTube has been blocked since March.
Rubin and Harvard’s Zuckerman sought to dismiss direct comparisons between Iran and China, where Google has agreed to provide a limited version of its search results in order to operate in that country and serve its large and growing base of Internet users.
Unlike in China, where it operates a China-specific Google.cn, Google does not have a domain specific to Iran. This means when people in Tehran want to google something, they go to main, U.S.-centric site, Google.com.
“Iran is very different — they simply block access to most of the platforms we’re talking about,” Zuckerman said. “There’s no option to work with them and make some services available — it’s only possible to work around them.”
Associated Press writers Peter Svensson and Andrew Vanacore in New York, Anna Johnson in Dubai and Michael Weissenstein in Cairo contributed to this story.
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