Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bridge Blogging to Iran

Rebecca MacKinnon at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and regular blogger at RConversation, is doing some fascinating work on promoting and cataloguing the use of global blogging to provide an alternative means of information in repressive regimes. She calls it "bridge blogging." If the government controls the media in a particular country such as China or Iran, then how can locals get unfiltered information? One way is through "bridge bloggers" who write outside the country about events inside the country.

One such bridge blogger that MacKinnon highlights in a recent book interview is an Iranian dissident who lives in Canada named Hossein Derakhshan. Derakhshan writes a Persian/English blog at Hoder.com. Here is an excerpt of a recent interview that Hoder had with a German e-magazine, Jetzt.de, that gives you a flavor of the impact that bridge blogging is having in a country such as Iran:

Do you actually think that blogs have the ability to somehow change a political system as authorical as it is at time in Iran? Yes, but not directly. Masoud Behnoud, a veteran journalist and a blogger once wrote if blogs were around during the revolution and the war, things would've turned out differently. I think the most important function that blogs have in Iran right now is the public sphere they've created, referring to Habermas' concept. Blogs are now this unique space in which a relatively equal, interactive and collective debate could happen out of the government's control, and among a very influential group of people who are, sociologically speaking, reference groups for a lot of people around them.

Can the Iranian Blogosphere count as a realistic reflection for the common opinion of young Iranians? I believe so. Mainly because higher education in Iran is still free and therefore open even to the lower class. A lot of these bloggers are introduced to the concept of blogs in their computer labs and update them from there. Internet access cards and internet cafes are also widely available in even small cities in Iran because they make sense economically. There are now 7.5 million internet users in Iran and it is estimated there are over 700 thousand blogs written by Iranians. I can even say that reading or writing blogs is one of the biggest motives for Iranians for paying for Internet access – obviously after porn. According to a blogger, young people now chat less and blog more.

Nasrin Alavi wrote in her book “We are Iran”, that you were among the first who wrote a weblog in Persian plus giving a short “how to do a weblog”. Do you somehow feel like an Idol? Maybe Internet evangelist is better title. I've spent the past seven years introducing and promoting liberating technologies such as Internet, email, blogs, photoblogs, podcasts, etc. Before leaving for Canada in Dec. 2000, I was writing a daily column called "Internet" in the most popular reformist newspaper, titled "Asr-e Azadegan", which was eventually shut down after a few months.

I'm still getting emails from people who had no idea what Internet was at the time and were just collecting the column to read when they got access to the Internet. I was writing, in a simple and casual language -- language of my generation -- about how Internet could improve people's daily lives. Our newspaper was the first one which started to mention columnists' email addresses due to my persistence and my readers still remember how in my column I was nagging about the fact that some of them were not getting it at the time. Now they all not only have emails, but also they are savvy bloggers. Ask the famous satirist Ebrahim Nabavi.

I did the same thing for blogs. I dedicated the first year of my high-speed Internet access – which obviously happened in Canada where I immigrated to – introducing and promoting blogs.

I made a lot of blogs for people, spent tens of hours helping them with the technical issues, dragged a number of famous journalists to do it in order to give more credibility to it, kept a huge list of all Persian bloggers by the time manually and then later created a website to list them automatically with the help of a friend, etc. And I kept introducing new tools and technologies such as RSS feeds, blogrolls, It's really unfair to say I've only written an instruction.

Is your blog available from Iran? Its main URL (hoder.com) is filtered or blocked for Iranians in Iran by the government. But I've bought some other domain names such as hoder.us, hoder.info, editormyself.com, h0der.com etc. and many people access it through these addresses. But the thing is that it's very difficult to inform the readers about these new domain names. Because if they were too public, the officials would find it and filter it. If it's not public enough, people can't use them.

So it's a very interesting virtual partisanship which invoices a lot of psychological tricks. Such as using 0 (Zero) instead of Os so it still looks like the old address and the official think they've already filtered it. Lots of such small tricks.

However, other than the average of six, seven thousand readers who visit my blog everyday, I have over 11,000 subscribers to the blog through email; which is incredible. Email is the last thing they can block or control and in countries like Iran and China, I believe, email is the best way to get around internet censorship. My nightmare is to lose this extremely valuable list.
And Hoder, who clearly loathes Ahmadinejad, has some surprising opinions for the West. For example, in this open letter to US and EU leaders Hoder argues that "you can't stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons... so ... instead of putting all your energy on stopping Iran, channel all your resources to make this regime change its behavior.... [I]nstead of promoting inaction and boycott, encourage everyone to participate in the coming elections. The way you did and still do in Iraq."

One can certainly see how bridge blogging has the potential to dramatically impact access to information in repressive regimes such as Iran, as well as offer the outside world insights into the mindset of the common Iranian behind the curtain. Detailed, opinionated information about events relevant to Iran for all the world to read online and thousands of Iranians to read by email.

So what is the future of bridge blogging? Rebecca MacKinnon writes, "It is going to be fascinating to see how this develops and what kind of impact the blogs begin to have on press and politics in various countries. It's still in its very early days but all of these people that I have mentioned are playing historic roles in changing the way political discussion takes place in these countries."

Bridge blogging is one of the more exciting events occuring on the blogosphere. While blog pundits in the United States can make a marginal difference, bridge bloggers in other countries are providing a critical source of fresh, clear, bottom-up communication to their fellow citizens. In countries where the mass media is polluted by government controls, bridge bloggers can quench the thirst for less filtered news.

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