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Crisis in Iran Sparks Global Guerrilla Cyberwar

The election crisis in Iran has ignited a full-on guerrilla cyberwar, with Twitterers and techies across the globe pitching in to help protesters in that country access the Internet, and official Iranian government Web sites being knocked offline.

The U.S. State Department even reportedly weighed in, with an unnamed official telling Reuters Tuesday that it had asked Twitter not to "shut down its system in Iran."

Early on Monday, bloggers outside Iran began posting and tweeting links to Web proxy servers that Iranians could use to dodge censorship — and others put up how-to guides for setting up even more proxies.

Many Twitterers were changing their "location" setting to Tehran and their "time" to +0330 GMT in order to confuse Iranian Web censors seeking to squelch in-country postings.

Some efforts took a more aggressive tone, as "hacktivists" talked of taking down Iranian goverment Web sites, and at least one American blogger posted instructions on how to do so.

As of midday Tuesday, Web sites belonging to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were unreachable.

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Twitter itself, realizing how vital it had become, put off a scheduled maintenance outage until 5 p.m. EDT Tuesday (1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran) so that Iranians could get in a full day of uninterrupted tweeting.

Iranians used the proxy servers to upload dozens of video clips to YouTube, despite an official block on the Web site within the country.

One blurry YouTube clip, likely shot with a cell phone, showed what appeared to have been a member of the Basij paramilitary force firing down from a second-story window into a courtyard with an AK-47 as protests continued behind a high wall.

The footage broadly matched an incident in Tehran Monday evening, when protesters broke into a Basij compound. Seven were reported killed.

Back in the U.S., the Iran protests drew support, and maybe even some collateral damage.

"My website has been attacked by Iran. My servers are melting," wrote blogger Austin Heap, a San Francisco IT professional who's become one of the leaders of the cyberinsurrection.

"But individuals in the opposition are still able to use technology to mobilize each other," he wrote. "And the tech community around the world is still able to support them."

He at first posted proxy links late Sunday, then switched Monday to instructions on how to set them up, and finally posted code on how to disable Iranian official servers.

Also in San Francisco, Twitter sacrificed the convenience of millions of users in the Americas for the greater cause of Iranian freedom.

"A critical network upgrade must be performed to ensure continued operation of Twitter. In coordination with Twitter, our network host had planned this upgrade for tonight," co-founder Biz Stone wrote on the official Twitter blog Monday afternoon.

"However, our network partners at NTT America recognize the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran. Tonight's planned maintenance has been rescheduled to tomorrow between 2-3p PST (1:30a in Iran)."

There was no comment from Twitter regarding the Reuters report that the State Dept. had asked it to keep Twitter up.

Late Monday, top Iranian crisis tweeter Moussavi1388, an unofficial mouthpiece for officially defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, tweeted: "Twitter is currently our ONLY way to communicate overnight news in Iran, PLEASE do not take it down."

Meanwhile, #iranelection soared to the top of Twitter's most-searched-term list, with new tweets coming in even faster Tuesday than they had the day before.

"Unconfirmed rumours — army generals arrested — many rumours of coupdetat by army," posted PersianKiwi, another top Enlish-language Iranian Twitterer, on Tuesday morning.

One big question lay open — if Chinese officials were able to block Twitter just before the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, why couldn't Iran?

"[Users are] using proxies to break the filters. So twitter is even being blocked too," answered Michelle Moghtader of the National Iranian American Council, responding to a question during a live chat on WashingtonPost.com.

"You can say it's online warfare of constant censoring and breaking of filters," she added.

Internet expert Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard, wrote on his blog that Twitter's own sloppiness helped it evade Iranian blockers.

"Twitter isn't just any particular Web site. It's an atom designed to be built into other molecules," said Zittrain. "More than most, Twitter allows multiple paths in and out for data."

"The very fact that Twitter itself is half-baked, coupled with its designers' willingness to let anyone build on top of it to finish baking it," he added, "is what makes it so powerful."