In the current political crisis in Iran, the boldest tool, turns out to be civic technology. Iran has gone out of its way to block the BBC, Yahoo, mobile phone networks, foreign journalists, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites during the election. What this has revealed is that the Iranian government is very sophisticated in blocking access to technology.
But sites are biting back; even Twitter rescheduled a maintenance, so that Iranians would be able to tweet during this crucial time. And one of the most powerful ways to combat this censorship is by using what’s known as a proxy server. A proxy server is basically a middle man. It’s there for people to interact between their computer and another server; it’s like fooling the Internet into thinking you’re in one place when you’re someplace else. When the government blocks sites like YouTube, a proxy server is basically sending out pings saying, “I swear this site isn’t YouTube.” At least that’s how a friend explained it to me (I’m not that computer savvy.)
But all in all, it allows people using the web in Iran to access restricted sites like Twitter. It’s two main functions are to keep people anonymous and to speed up access. Here’s an NPR podcast that explains it better. So, while it can be used for not so altruistic purposes (see spam); in a crisis like the one in Iran, it becomes completely critical.
That’s where Austin Heap comes in. He’s a 25 year old San Francisco IT director, famous for his teenage days of hosting free episodes of South Park, and now he’s found himself right in the middle of the Iranians’ political movement.
He began by collecting a list of different proxy servers and created online instructions on how to set one up. People began to contact him from all over the world, sending their own new proxy network addresses, and all of a sudden he found his website flooded with traffic. He’s empowering Iranians to contest the election, utilizing the very powerful tools of the Internet, by routing them from the sites that have been blocked. Will despotism be able to survive this powerful combination of civil unrest and technology? I don’t know, but I’m rethinking all of the baseless complaints I make about Twitter; seriously this is the way in which it should be used for – social change.