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Iranians Still Connect To Social-Networking Sites

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laura Sydell
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.