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YouTube: The Battle of Technology vs. Censorship

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Although authorities in Iran filter thousands of websites including YouTube, it is increasingly used by many Iranians who manage to by-pass the censorship; they regularly place their home made or semi-professional controversial videos on the web, to challenge the Islamic government's social and political restrictions.

In the past few years, many Iranians with Internet access have used blogs, email lists and cell messengers to convey their fears, hopes, or disturbing conditions; now, You Tube and other similar video-sharing websites have afforded them a new venue for sharing their perspectives with the world without having to deal with the strong censorship that exists in print media or filters that bog down other websites. Images generated from Iran and placed on YouTube are indeed important, unexpected, and moving.

Points of interest in these videos go beyond images of police brutality against women (in noncompliance of the dress code), harsh rap music in objection to social and political oppression, or satirical collages of false claims made by politicians; they include the daily lives of people, their interests, how they interact, and what they actually think. These videos reflect the difference between the way people live and the way government wants them to live.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
, who won the presidential election in 2005 by making economic promises and insisting that the government will respect people's privacy, has now reneged on his promises and is implementing aggressive policies against civil rights movements. In the last two years, there have been attacks on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to privacy in people's lives. In a gesture of protest, a YouTube clip of President Ahmadinejad's presidential campaign (during which he made all these claims) is widely distributed among Iranian Internet users via mailing lists and email links.

Two months ago, the government launched a new round of crackdowns on women's dress code, to ensure it adapts to Islamic standards, and that women do not continue to push the boundaries by westernizing their appearance. In recent chats with friends, family and my blog readers, I consistently hear about the violent behavior of government agents toward people in the streets, especially women. "People feel insulted and humiliated to be constantly told what to wear and what not to wear," shared a 21-year old female blog reader from Tehran.

Having lived in Iran a few years back, I had a sense of what they were sharing, but couldn't quite imagine it until I saw a clip of the dress-code police beating up people in the streets. I understood how things have become more extreme under the order of the hardliners. The video which was recorded using a cell phone camera was touching and gut-wrenching at the same time: it showed the policeman forcing a women into a car with kicks (as they are technically not supposed to touch a woman), while she was screaming in protest.

In a short time, similar clips were quickly circulated on the web worldwide, especially YouTube. Just in the last few weeks, I have received over twenty emails containing links to such videos. If you go to YouTube and search words like "Iranian Women", "Hijab", or "Iran and Police", you will see tens of clips that reveal the realities in Iran, as well as people's true reactions to them vs. what we see in mainstream media.

Even foreign correspondents that are banned from videotaping such incidents are using cell phone clips for distribution. Last month, BBC correspondent Francis Harrison, began her report from Tehran with such a video clip. The advances of cell phone technology paired with the distribution capabilities of the Internet are fast removing boundaries to proper dissemination of information. Technology is bound to overcome censorship -- no matter how slowly -- even in Iran.