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Tech-Savvy Protesters Battle Iranian Government in Cyberspace

In the days since Iran's contested presidential vote, demonstrators have proved resourceful and adept in bypassing a government clampdown on information sharing. Aided by mobile phones and an array of Internet services, technology-savvy Iranians have organized among themselves and communicated with the outside world, sending personalized and unfiltered accounts of events as they unfold in their country. We examine the role technology is playing in Iran's post-election saga, and how it is affecting the balance of power between some autocratic regimes and the people.

Iranians have seized the world's attention through gripping, first-hand people-to-people reporting. Surf the Internet, and you will find countless uploaded videos depicting defiance, as well as chaos and violence on the streets.

At the same time, messages disseminated through Web-based services like Twitter and appearing on social networks like Facebook have helped demonstrators coordinate activities, warn each other of danger, and keep the world informed on a minute-by-minute basis.

It is precisely the global outreach of ordinary Iranians that impresses Virginia-based social media entrepreneur and author Geoff Livingston.

"To see it happen in Iran and to see the global community embrace it and pick up on it and watch it as it happens - we have never seen anything like this before," he said.

With foreign journalists either forced to leave Iran or confined to their hotels, major news organizations have come to rely heavily on Iran's fledgling crop of citizen journalists.

"There are no reliable [official] sources right now in Iran," said VOA Persian News Network television anchor Hamideh Aramideh. "People are the reliable sources. They are not just one, two, three hundred. They are thousands."

Aramideh's Facebook page has added thousands of new Iranian contacts in recent days.

Iran's demographics help explain the country's post-election dynamic, according to Alex Vatanka, Senior Middle East Analyst for Jane's Information Group.

"It is a reflection of the youthfulness of the country," he said. "A country of 70 percent being under the age of 30. It is youthful, it is technologically-savvy, it is able to use the latest gadgets."

But Vatanka adds that the use of technology is not limited to Iranian demonstrators.

"Authorities also can use Facebook and other social networking services as their own as a way of rallying support," he said. "And, they can monitor what is being said in cyberspace. Monitor who is saying what."

Iran's authorities have limited options when it comes to blocking communication, according to blogger and author Daniel Drezner, who teaches international politics at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

"The obvious option is to try to disrupt the means of communication," he said. "But it is worth recognizing that, even if you shut down Twitter, word-of-mouth still works, just as it did over a century ago."

Drezner says Iran is only the latest country in which technology has facilitated a popular uprising.

"Democratic movements have undoubtedly benefited from this," he said. "We have had a whole series of 'color revolutions' where we have seen this kind of thing. That said, there are two caveats. The first is: it is a dynamic process where you do have governments over time learning how to thwart these things. For example, while you had an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the government in Belarus was very quick to crack down on any possibility of a social movement. The second [caveat] is that sometimes things happen through these technologies that would have happened anyway. It is simply that we would not have observed them otherwise."

Geoff Livingston says authoritarian governments stifle their citizen's ability to communicate at their own peril.

"That really puts them in a dangerous spot, because in order to prevent this [information sharing] from happening, they have to stunt their own technological development," he said. "Which means they have to stunt their own economic development and their own welfare. Do you become North Korea - walled off from the world with no technology? Or do you embrace this and start moving towards democracy?"

Web-based services have taken special measures in response to developments in Iran. Twitter delayed scheduled maintenance that would have disrupted the service. YouTube is relaxing restrictions to allow videos from Iran that contain scenes of violence, saying the images are "important" for the world to see.