The Iran Lesson: Technology Can Set You Free

After two weeks of news from Iran, it wasn’t a tweet from Tehran that came to symbolize the horror in a potential revolution and the real-time, cinema verite nature of its storytelling. True, it was a moment brought to you by digital technology and the Internet, but it wasn’t Twitter that made the leader of the free world search for the right words during this week’s presidential press conference.

It was video — Neda Agha-Soltan’s death at the hands of an Iranian militiaman’s bullet; a forty-second snippet of camera-phone video showing the 27-year-old philosophy student’s last minutes of life lying on a Tehran street, minutes full of blood and chaos and screams that rocketed around the world, courtesy of YouTube and Facebook; minutes that Barack Obama called “heartbreaking” when a reporter asked if he had seen the video on the Web.

Edited portions of the video have since shown up on broadcast and cable newscasts. However, once again, it was a different kind of network that trumped the three-letter versions in telling Neda’s story. Thanks to social networks and other networked communication technologies of the 21st century, she’s now the face of the opposition in Iran.

That’s for better or for worse: for better, because her brutal death, witnessed by a handful of people on the ground and millions around the world, has crystallized the real danger in the situation that a flood of tweets simply can’t convey; for worse, because the gruesome, “Faces of Death” nature of the video, the power of the Web and the subsequent opportunity for exploitation have robbed her family of any semblance of privacy.

The video is dramatic, it is disturbing, and it is part of the foundation of the 24/7 mediaverse. Don’t ask me why, but when I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think of those “screamer” videos YouTube is famous for. By “screamer” videos, I mean those sophomoric pranks designed to scare unsuspecting little brothers: Promise them they’ll see rare video of a “ghost car,” or trick them with a Flash-based maze game, and right before the end, show a closeup of Linda Blair in full demon makeup from “The Exorcist” accompanied by a piercing scream on the soundtrack.

Neda’s death is a real vision of hell on Earth brought to you by a repressive regime. The only comfort to be taken from any of this is the fact that technology will ensure that if there are more government-sanctioned murders in Iran, you and the rest of the world can bear witness to the atrocities.

Shield Laws vs. Software Shields

Will Neda’s death video alone bring down the Iranian government? Doubtful. But a steady stream of information that gets around data-packet-sniffing watchdogs and IP-address bloodhounds might do the trick. Web sites for traditional news organizations that can show the people of Iran how their revolution-in-waiting is being covered by the global media can be as potent a weapon for the oppressed as Twitter or text messages — provided, of course, that Iranians have an unblocked view of that coverage.

Sunnyvale, California-based AnchorFree is one company trying to give global Web surfers a measure of privacy and control in parts of the world where governments hope to do all the controlling. AnchorFree’s software, Hotspot Shield, sets up a virtual private network (VPN) for users that cloaks their IP address and enables them to access uncensored versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter, along with CNN and BBC Web sites, in countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“Right now, I would say we’re the biggest disruptor of censorship in the world online,” AnchorFree CEO and cofounder David Gorodyansky told TechNewsWorld, “but we’re not out to necessarily fight any kind of government or be intent on disrupting them. Our goal is to enable users to be private and secure on the Web, and to have access to the Web. We have no political agenda. We don’t have anything against any government. We simply have a piece of technology that enables [users] to have control on the Web.”

The Hotspot Shield Web site does indeed mention other uses for its free software besides getting around government firewalls: extra security at public WiFi spaces like airports, hotels or coffee shops, for one thing. However, AnchorFree is quick to point out that Hotspot Shield grew 500 percent in 2008 — from 1 million unique monthly visitors to more than 5 million — and that the top countries where the software is used (other than the U.S.) include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, China, Thailand and Turkey.

Iran is not on that list, but Gorodyansky says his product is in use there and that “news is one of the top categories” for Hotspot Shield users when they connect online. Others are search and social networks. News reports via media Web sites and social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can ensure that the whole world continues to watch events in Iran.

“It’s not just technology that disrupts censorship that we’re providing; it’s also a communications platform that enables back-and-forth communications between content providers and users,” Gorodyansky said.

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Tweets

The emphasis early in the Iranian protests was rightfully on Twitter and its ability to disseminate information on what was going on in the streets. Granted, a lot of it was unconfirmed, and it required extra work on everyone’s part to validate some claims, but there was still value in the crowd’s 140-character messages — not to mention the ability for those in Tehran and other cities to use the network to organize.

Some on the outside were also sending hints on how to avoid detection when using IP addresses; a how-to-aid-dissent primer courtesy of BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow was retweeted countless times.

Yet, when CNN and other networks, along with news Web sites, began showing pictures and video sent via Twitpic, Flickr, Facebook and other social networks, the story began to resolve itself.

Pictures and video can still be faked (witness CNN’s caveat graphic “unverified video” in a corner of the screen when it shows homemade video of demonstrations) but the cliche about a picture being worth 1,000 words doesn’t gain cliche status without acquiring some truth after all these years.

A sea of protesters, the faces of young people demanding their votes back, handheld and chaotic video of teargas clouds in the streets of Tehran, and ultimately the death of a young woman — all are images initially captured and disseminated by citizens using off-the-shelf and on-the-Web technology, and then retransmitted via traditional global media.

It’s the old and new media blending to bring us possible change in Iran. When it’s all over, journalists will fall back on a tried-and-true storytelling device to tell the world about what happened there: someone’s personal story.

For that, they’ll likely begin with 40 seconds of video — the last 40 seconds of Neda Soltan’s life.

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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