The Iranian election issue has been fascinating to watch unfold. Twitter has shown itself to be more than just a place where people announce what they had for breakfast or drunkenly send updates from night buses as they meander home. Twitter has gained real importance in the eyes of many – where firsthand updates can be sent across the globe in the time it takes to type 140 characters, whether it’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, or protest marches in Moldova or Tehran.
The Internet has become a mini battleground, where distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks against government websites are the new Molotov cocktail. Lies deception and double bluffs are many. Numerous requests have come (apparently) from Iranians asking for government sites to be hacked and or brought down, other requests come through saying the attacks are doing more harm than good. Others ask for Proxy servers, VPN connections and SSH Tunnels to allow Iranians to break out of their government content filtered connections, yet more plead not to use proxies as they are all logged and the people using them will be imprisoned. Websites in Farsi have appeared, asking Iranians to sign up pledging support for Mousavi, with their names addresses and phone numbers, then tweets fly saying they are fake, set up by the government to entrap the unwary. Lies and the truth intermingle, both reinforced by re-tweets from people who have no idea who their source is.
Internet access in Iran is curtailed, with many sites blocked. The Iranian network controllers must be playing whack-a-mole – short of cutting off Internet access for the whole country, gaining access to Twitter is very easy and virtually impossible to block. An important reason for this is the openness of the Twitter API – simply blocking twitter.com does nothing to stop people posting updates and reading tweets. The Twitter API allows 3rd party sites and applications to both post and read tweets, spawning a plethora of ways in and out of the service. Twitter is a many headed hydra.
This was a smart architectural decision, and one could argue perhaps the single biggest reason for its success. The numerous startups associated with Twitter but not actually part of Twitter are testimony to this. As a side issue, this openness makes monetising the Twitter userbase an interesting proposition, made extremely difficult when a significant proportion of your users don’t ever visit the site.
Google too have made this architectural choice with Google Wave. Right now I imagine there are developers and start ups in the making looking at the Google Wave architecture, and thinking how to build the next ‘Twitter’ based on this fantastic preview of forthcoming communications technology. Picture if you will decentralised Google Wave servers mirroring data between themselves, mirroring images, video and text, with real time updates and multiple paths in and out of the system. A network of public Wave servers akin to the way USENET distributes content would be a truly powerful thing.
Simple architectural decisions in favour of openness and interoperability can have profound effects, though I don’t imagine the engineers at Twitter realised how their service would be used when they designed it.
Whatever the full impact of Twitter, Youtube and Flickr will be on the turmoil in Iran remains to be seen, but what is clear is this: the Internet is making things much more difficult to be a dictator.
Picture fhashemi on Flickr.