"At one time, authoritarian regimes could draw a shroud around the events in their countries by simply snipping the long-distance phone lines and restricting a few foreigners. But this is the new arena of censorship in the 21st century, a world where cellphone cameras, Twitter accounts and all the trappings of the World Wide Web have changed the ancient calculus of how much power governments actually have to sequester their nations from the eyes of the world and make it difficult for their own people to gather, dissent and rebel.
"Iran’s sometimes faltering attempts to come to grips with this new reality are providing a laboratory for what can and cannot be done in this new media age — and providing lessons to other governments, watching with calculated interest from afar, about what they may be able to get away with should their own citizens take to the streets.
"One early lesson is that it is easier for Iranian authorities to limit images and information within their own country than it is to stop them from spreading rapidly to the outside world. While Iran has severely restricted Internet access, a loose worldwide network of sympathizers has risen up to help keep activists and spontaneous filmmakers connected.
"The pervasiveness of the Web makes censorship 'a much more complicated job,' said John Palfrey, a co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
"The Berkman Center estimates that about three dozen governments — as widely disparate as China, Cuba and Uzbekistan — extensively control their citizens’ access to the Internet. Of those, Iran is one of the most aggressive. Mr. Palfrey said the trend during this decade has been toward more, not less, censorship. 'It’s almost impossible for the censor to win in an Internet world, but they’re putting up a good fight,' he said.
"Since the advent of the digital age, governments and rebels have dueled over attempts to censor communications. Text messaging was used to rally supporters in a popular political uprising in Ukraine in 2004 and to threaten activists in Belarus in 2006. When Myanmar sought to silence demonstrators in 2007, it switched off the country’s Internet network for six weeks. Earlier this month, China blocked sites like YouTube to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
"In Iran, the censorship has been more sophisticated, amounting to an extraordinary cyberduel. It feels at times as if communications within the country are being strained through a sieve, as the government slows down Web access and uses the latest spying technology to pinpoint opponents. But at least in limited ways, users are still able to send Twitter messages, or tweets, and transmit video to one another and to a world of online spectators.
"Because of the determination of those users, hundreds of amateur videos from Tehran and other cities have been uploaded to YouTube in recent days, providing television networks with hours of raw — but unverified — video from the protests.
"The Internet has 'certainly broken 30 years of state control over what is seen and is unseen, what is visible versus invisible,' said Navtej Dhillon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/world/middleeast/23censor.html?hp).