Iranian cyber-activists use social nets to cut out the middleman

Anthony Papillion says he just wants to give Iranians a voice, but the word on Twitter these days is that he’s not to be trusted.

The owner of a medical records software business in the tiny town of Miami Oklahoma, he’s on the forefront of a new wave of Internet activism, fueled by social media sites like Twitter, which are giving Iranian citizens and supporters of the government protests there new ways of involving themselves in the political struggle.

YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have led the mainstream media’s coverage of the events in Iran this week. They’ve let Iranians and supporters of the protesters share information, even within the centrally controlled Internet service in Iran and connected people like Papillon to a country on the other side of the world.

Twitter is being credited with pushing the mainstream media to pay more attention to protests in Tehran by supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was declared the loser in last week’s election. And while the vast majority of people send Twitter messages with the popular tag #iranelections from outside of Iran, some voices inside the country are getting around government censorship.

Papillon’s foray into Iranian activism started late Saturday, when he spent the night putting up a proxy server on his home Web site. Proxy servers are Web sites that let people visit parts of the Internet that would normally be blocked to them. Teenagers use this kind of technology to skirt filters at the local library. In Iran, where Internet access is centrally controlled, by the state-owned Data communication Company of Iran, and YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all seem to be blocked, proxy servers have become a critical conduit for information.

Some times, however, the activists are driving the censorship all by themselves. That’s what Papillon eventually discovered first-hand.

Hours after he set up his proxy server on Sunday, it was attacked with a DOS attack and then apparently blocked from within Iran. So then he set up another server that he hoped Iranians would use to anonymously post Twitter messages to the outside world.

Because he was worried that the account might be used to spread false information, he told visitors that he would be logging IP (Internet Protocol) addresses in order to block untrustworthy sources.

That completely backfired. Soon, Twitter was ablaze with messages warning people not to use his site. People who follow him on Twitter are now warned not to pass along any of his information. That type of message gets repeated and passed on over and over again. A typical message: “Iranians! Whatever you do, DO NOT USE @AnonymousInIran to anontweet. They’re tracking user locations. It’s a trap”

Although his AnonymousInIran page lists his Oklahoma phone number, Papillon says he’s not upset about being called an agent of the state. He says that he understands that people’s lives are at stake. “The reason I’m not reacting very strongly to this is because during something like this it’s OK to be wrong,” he said. “I would rather them totally destroy the service than…. [have] anybody get hurt. I understand the paranoia.”

Papillion’s story is just one of many that contribute to the exciting and emerging back-story coming out of the protest movement in Iran. Web 2.0 is paving new routes around Internet censorship.

To Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.who has studied Internet censorship it’s amazing how naturally people who are not necessarily technical have found ways to organize information on-line and decide who to trust using things as simple as Twitter — a 140 character micro-blogging service with a basic search feature. “It’s a pretty incredible counter-intelligence network,” he said.

In recent days these social media networks are getting more important as mainstream reporters have been confined to their hotel rooms on government orders or forced to head home when their visas expire.

On YouTube users can find street scenes in Iran, including videos of protesters being beaten and shot by police. “The traditional media is in some ways not able to provide it because there are restrictions placed on them by the Iranian government,” said YouTube spokesman Scott Rubin .”It’s the citizens stealing the story.” YouTube is seeing only about [10 percentof the normal traffic from Iran, but the site is displaying more Iranian video than usual, said Rubin. He attributes much of the phenomenon to proxies.

YouTube has been blocked before. China cut off access to YouTube in March, but there was no groundswell effort to restore service within the country he said. “We never saw Chinese expats or people of Chinese descent around the world set up proxy servers for people to watch YouTube in China,” he said. “It’s unprecedented.”

Nowhere is Internet activism more visible than on Twitter, however, where Twitter messages from Iran-based users are followed by tens of thousands, and where activist tools can be readily found.

Psiphon, a Canadian company spun out of the University of Toronto’s Munk Center has been using Twitter to spread its proxy tools around the Internet.

“We are giving away what we call right2know nodes that push banned content to Iranians, and that they then can use to surf other banned content — without even signing up for an account,” said Greg Walton, a Psiphon staffer in an e-mail interview. “We’re getting hundreds of people signing on — one a minute in the first hour and a half we set up the first node.”

According to Walton, Iranians are hitting sites like that of the U.S.-sponsored Persian radio station, RadioFarda, Facebook, and international news agencies such as the BBC.

Although cyber-activists have jumped in on international incidents ranging from the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to last year’s conflicts in Georgia and Gaza, this is the first time that Twitter has played such an active role in mobilizing activists.

“Twitter is such a cut-out-the middleman type of situation,” said Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics with the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This has made information available to a wider group of people, but it in addition to spreading information about proxy servers, it has made home-grown attack tools available to a wider audience.

In the early days of the protests, some activists encouraged others to launch denial of service (DOS) attacks against Iranian news and government Web sites, knocking many of them offline.

When tools like this were used during conflicts in Estonia and Georgia, they would pop up in members-only on-line discussion forums. With the Iran protests, they’re much more widely available. “On Twitter, you have all the data you need in order to participate in the attack, no membership required,” Warner said.

But soon the anti-government activists realized that DOS attacks were maybe not such a good idea. Not only is it illegal in many countries to launch a DOS attack, but this type of activity also slows down the network throughout Iran, making it hard to get messages out.

One DOS tool, called SupportIran.php was widely linked on Twitter, before it was removed by its creator, Austin Heap, an IT Director at Pacific News Service in San Francisco. Heap is now advising people not to launch DOS attacks against Iranian sites and is focusing his efforts on creating proxy servers that work for people inside Iran.

In an article posted to Salon Tuesday, Heap said he was motivated to act after seeing the messages marked #cnnfail #iranelection become popular on Twitter on Sunday night. Soon he was receiving more than 2,000 simultaneous connections from Iran — people trying to use his proxy servers to reach parts of the Internet that have been blocked by the Iranian government.

Twitter, in particular, has proven particularly adept at organizing people and information, said Zittrain. Although Proxies are the most popular way of reaching Twitter, updates can also be sent via other Web applications, SMS (Short Message Service) or even e-mail.

“It’s a byproduct of the way Twitter was built,” he said. “The fact that the APIs are so open has meant that there are already lots of ways to get data in and out of Twitter, that do not rely on direct access to”

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