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Twitterverse working to confuse Iranian censors

Twitter users are changing profile settings to appear as if they live in Tehran in a bid to overwhelm censors looking for locals using the service to spread protest news.

Twitter users are urging each other to change their location settings to confuse censors in Iran.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from a reader who had seen my story about Twitter users slamming CNN for its initial absence on the post-Iranian election protests, urging me to remove an image in the story.

The rationale? The image was of Twitter results and included users' account IDs, and the reader was worried that the Iranian government might seek out and punish any users who were employing Twitter for potentially subversive purposes.

We decided not to remove the image, in part because it had been up for more than 24 hours, and also because we suspected that the Iranian government knows how to use Twitter and how to find people in that country using the microblogging service as a way to spread news about the protests.

But now, Twitter users across the world are attempting to turn that dynamic on its head. The best way that the Iranian government could discover which tweets were from Iranians is to look and see whose accounts are registered to people who identify themselves as being from that country. That's possible because users' profiles allow people to define which city they're from and which time zone they're in.

There's a new thread spreading quickly across Twitter--I found more than 1,300 such posts--urging people around the world to change those settings in order to make themselves appear to be in Tehran.

Under the profile setting, the plea goes, people should change their location to Tehran, and their time zone and home city to GMT +03:30 Tehran. The idea--and it's not entirely clear if this would work--is that this will simply overwhelm the censors with people who look like they're posting potentially subversive tweets from Iran, and hopefully, protect the actual Iranians who are doing so.

Twitter, of course--as well as other social media services, has been the front line for news about the massive protests--perhaps the biggest in Iran since the revolution in 1979 that toppled the Shah. The service's users--using the hashtag "#IranElection"--have consistently been ahead of the news media on the story. And Twitter convinced its host, NTT America, to delay scheduled downtime in order to keep the service up and running so as to continue to give users a way to spread and receive news about what's going on in Iran.

The question has come up, again and again, about what would have happened in China in 1989 if protesters in Tiananmen Square had had Twitter at their disposal. I think China is more adept at censorship than Iran, but it seems clear that where there's a will, there's a way. And users of the Internet are a lot more clever than bureaucratic censors. I think the word would have gotten out.