Iran’s Internet Revolution: The Backstory

Twenty-three million interent users, with a growth rate of 48% year-on-year and 60,000 active bloggers. Yep, we’re talking Iran. A third of the nation is online and, seemingly, another third is on the streets.

These figures, sourced from the Open Net Initiative, are no surprise to anyone who’s had any dealings with the Iranian blogosphere.

Back in early 2006 Channel 4 News presented a week of programmes from inside the country. News from Iran was fronted by Jon Snow and both international editor Lindsey Hilsum and science correspondent Julian Rush were on the ground for the week, along with a team of producers, cameramen, editors, and the programme director.

Alongside the broadcasts we were busily blogging and podding. In fact it was the first time we’d blogged in earnest – if a $149 Typepad licence counts.

What really made the site come alive were the contributions from Iranians, not just the diaspora but those inside Iran itself. The blogroll ran and ran.

But perhaps the most telling moment of the week came when Jon Snow went to interview a religious cleric in Qom, the Shia heartland of Iran.

As Jon made his way to the interview, the cleric and entourage approached brandishing reams of paper. On it was pretty much everything published about Iran from the Channel 4 News website.

Reflecting on this later, Jon said that it was the first time as a foreign correspondent he’d felt that his subject had known as much, if not more, about him than he had about them. The internet was changing the rules of foreign reporting.

Of course things web have moved on again in the three and a half years since Channel 4 News was in Tehran, Esfahan and Qom.

Mobile phone footage is helping international correspondents, their movements restricted by the Iranian authorities, to show something of what is going on. Meanwhile, micro-blogging service Twitter has provided a running, real-time commentary of events.

Twitter is the real game-changer, says Clay Shirky, new media professor at New York University and author of Here Comes Everybody

Shirky said in an interview published on Monday:

Twitter so simple and so open that it’s easier to integrate and harder to control than any other tool. At the time, I’m sure it wasn’t conceived as anything other than a smart engineering choice. But it’s had global consequences.

Twitter is shareable and open and participatory in a way that Facebook’s model prevents. So far, despite a massive effort, the authorities have found no way to shut it down, and now there are literally thousands of people around the world who’ve made it their business to help keep it open.

Hence reported efforts by the US State Department to delay a planned upgrade to the service while the Iranian election protests were in full swing.

So, despite slowing internet speeds in Tehran, the multi-platform, mulit-application, simple to use Twitter will continue to keep the lines of communication open between Iran and the rest of the world.


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