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Web support pours out for Iran protesters

NEW YORK - Google and Facebook have rushed out services inFarsi. Twitter users have changed their home cities to Tehran toprovide cover for Internet users there. Others have configuredtheir computers to serve as relay points to bypass Iraniancensorship.

In the aftermath of the disputed Iranian election, Internetcompanies and individuals around the world have stepped in to helpIranians communicate and organize.

Twitter delayed a scheduled maintenance shutdown so that peoplecould continue to access the microblogging site while scores ofAmericans set up remote proxy servers so Iranians could accessblocked Web sites from inside their country.

All week, Internet users in the U.S. and around the world fixedtheir eyes on the events unfolding in Iran, the way viewers mighthave been glued to their television sets 30 years ago. But unlike30, or even five years ago, this time they could participate.

"Even if we can't help directly, this is a way of helpingindirectly," said Ian Souter, 24, an unemployed computer animatorin Lafayette, Ind.

He and other U.S. Web users set up ways for Iranians to accessthe Internet using Tor, a service that allows people use theInternet anonymously.

Even the file-sharing site Pirate Bay, best known for itsrun-ins with the law over copyright infringement, has jumped inwith the launch of a network that helps Iranians surf anonymously.

Still, it was difficult to tell just how much of thisinformation was accessible to people inside Iran. The governmenthas restricted communications channels, and cell phone service hasbeen spotty. Many sites were blocked and service has been muchslower than normal. Even the use of proxies has grown moredifficult as the government finds them, and the country'sRevolutionary Guard has sternly warned people against postingobjectionable content on Web sites.

Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Chelmsford, Mass.-based ArborNetworks Inc., said Iran's telecommunications monopoly has cut backthe 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 evadingcensorship, including the use of proxies, which allow Iranians tomask sites they are trying to view by having traffic relayedthrough 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 forfear of government retaliation, said in an e-mail Friday thegovernment has "filtered Facebook but we use proxy."

"We will protest until they change the results. We hope hopehope," the resident wrote.

It was such protesters that Twitter users like Arik Fraimovichwere hoping to stand behind -- if only online.

Fraimovich, a 24-year-old man from Israel who describes himselfas a "geek and entrepreneur," created an application that letshim and other Twitter users easily tint their profile picturesgreen, the trademark color of reformist candidate Mir HossainMousavi.

Because Twitter is public and easy to use from cell phones, ithas proven an effective way of spreading messages to the masses,including protesters. But its free-for-all form also lends itselfto piles of unverified information -- and spam -- spreading likewildfire.

Throughout the week, in an attempt to confuse censors, manyTwitter users in the U.S. and elsewhere also changed their listedlocations and time zones to the Iranian capital. A show of support,it also made it more difficult to see just how many people weretweeting from Iran.

On Facebook, Mousavi supporters organized protests through hispublic page and posted photos, videos and messages in Farsi. As ofFriday, he had more than 66,000 supporters.

The online outpouring has been "hugely important for lettingthe wider world feel solidarity with the protesters, and inbringing attention to the issues," said Ethan Zuckerman, researchfellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet andSociety. But, he added, "probably not that important in actuallymobilizing people on the ground."

A lot of the information on social sites was coming not directlyfrom inside Iran but from Iranians in the diaspora.

"When we see these movements take over social networks, a lotof (that) is in the U.S.," Zuckerman said. "A lot of this trafficwe 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 newsoutlets like CNN and The New York Times turned to regular peoplewith cameras to report on the news. The BBC and the Voice ofAmerican, meanwhile, added more satellites to broadcast into Iran,which had jammed their signals.

YouTube, Google's video sharing site, became a de facto newschannel 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 politicalblog, 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 tocommunicate in their own language.

Facebook, which has been working on translating its site todozens of languages with help from its users, had more than 400Farsi speakers submitting thousands of individual translations.

Google, meanwhile, added Farsi to its online translator, callingit "one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicatedirectly to the world, and vice versa."

Though it rushed out its Farsi translator, Google said it hadtreated the events in Iran as it would to any other major worldevent.

"People are using our services as intended," spokesman ScottRubin said.

Earlier in the week, YouTube issued a statement directed atIran, reiterating that it allows clips depicting violence there andelsewhere because of their journalistic merit. Although itgenerally bans videos with graphic or gratuitous violence, YouTubehas long made exceptions for clips with educational, documentary ofscientific value.

Rubin said Google has no way of measuring the amount of materialflowing from the protests in Iran. But he called it "ongoing andpersistent and an incredibly valuable source of citizenjournalism."

While there have been reports of Google's e-mail service, Gmail,being blocked, Rubin said the company has not seen any evidence onits end. YouTube, on the other hand, was getting only 10 percent ofits normal traffic from Iran, indicating a block.

In China, where the government has long restricted Internetcontent, YouTube has been blocked since March.

Rubin and Harvard's Zuckerman sought to dismiss directcomparisons between Iran and China, where Google has agreed toprovide a limited version of its search results in order to operatein that country and serve its large and growing base of Internetusers.

Unlike in China, where it operates a China-specific Google.cn,Google does not have a domain specific to Iran. This means whenpeople 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 ofthe platforms we're talking about," Zuckerman said. "There's nooption to work with them and make some services available -- it'sonly possible to work around them."

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