Page last updated at 08:00 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 09:00 UK

On Iran's virtual front line

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Austin Heap at the Iran Rally in San Francisco July 2009 (Courtesy Steve Rhodes)
Austin says he has no regrets about getting involved

At a recent demonstration in San Francisco, thousands of supporters chanted for freedom and democracy for Iran following the contested presidential election held in June.

More than 40 days have passed since the election result declared for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many in Iran believe there was electoral fraud and opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi should have won.

At least 30 people have died and hundreds have been jailed for their part in protesting the outcome.

As Iranians rushed to the internet and social networking sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to vent their anger and organise rallies and demonstrations, the government countered by blocking them.

At the forefront in helping them has been a concerned tech community that has battled to find ways around Iranian government filters and blocks.

Among them is a 25-year-old, self-confessed geek who found himself on stage at the San Francisco rally explaining his role in a story that has variously gripped the world.

For many, Austin Heap has become one of a band of accidental heroes fighting on the virtual front lines to help Iranians speak out.

"A simple thing"

Mr Austin's role started out as a fairly simple one: compile a list of as many proxy servers for people so that they could get around the Iranian government's efforts to silence them.

Mr Heap also put out a set of simple instructions on how to set up these proxies, which act as an intermediary between a computer user and the internet to bypass censorship.

Message in Farsi saying access blocked, 25 May, 2009
Government filters have continually blocked social networking sites

In no time he became the main conduit of this list and was contacted by people all over the globe offering new proxy addresses.

Traffic to his site grew from a few dozen users a day to more than 100,000 in 24 hours.

"To me it seemed like such a simple thing to do," said Mr Heap from his downtown loft in the heart of San Francisco's tech community.

"I have the technical skills and resources and I knew I could call on the world's open source community for help to set up proxies. It seemed like it was something that wouldn't take up much of my time but that could make a big difference for a lot of people.

"These are people who are just like me. Young, connected and Web 2.0 nerds. I couldn't let them down," Mr Heap told BBC News.

Since then, the effort to keep Iran online has taken up all his free time and even eaten into his work time.

"I missed three weeks of work. No vacation. No Paris. I now work on this about 90 hours a week, from when I get up until I go to bed some days.

" It's all about keeping these people online in one form or another. Giving them the power to be heard."

"A better place"

Today Mr Heap is not alone.

His main cyber activist cohort is 24 year old Daniel Colascione from Buffalo, New York, whom he met online and through the micro-blogging service Twitter.

"Daniel is phenomenal at understanding all those ones and zeros and bits and bytes like no one I know," said Mr Heap.

Protest in Iran
Protests in Iran have continued since the 12 June presidential election

"As a matter of principle I had to do something to help. It was critically important for me, " explained Mr Colascione.

"We want to make the world a better place and make sure the people who died there didn't die in vain."

Together the two 20-year-old somethings developed some anti-filtering software called Haystack. In lofty terms, Mr Heap said it "is designed to honestly uphold human rights via technology."

Less prosaically it is meant to help people inside Iran circumvent their own government's filtering system.

"That means whenever someone inside the country gets a page saying 'access denied' when they try to use Twitter or Facebook, if they run Haystack Twitter is back, Facebook is back.

"It's completely secure for the user so the government can't snoop on them. We use many anonymising steps so that identities are masked and it is as safe as possible so people have a safe way to communicate with the world," explained Mr Heap.

National firewall

So just how effective have Mr Heap and others been in their efforts to get around the so called Iranian national firewall.

Arbor Networks monitors more than 70% of the world's internet service providers, or ISP's, along with many large businesses.

graph from Arbor networks
Arbor Networks said Iran put the brakes on the internet

It has charted the flow of internet traffic in and out of Iran since the election and found that traffic is down an average of 30-40%.

"Throughout this period we have seen some severe filtering as the government consolidates its physical and virtual hold over its people," Arbor Network's chief scientist Craig Labovitz told BBC News.

"It has been interesting watching those traffic manipulations and from our perspective it has looked as though Iran has struggled with the technology and the capacity to do the filtering. Folks are still finding their way around the filters."

Other software products similar to Haystack include FreeGate, which was devised to work around filtering efforts in China.

"Good versus evil"

Back in early June, before the election had taken place Mr Heap spent his spare time playing the online game World of Warcraft. He has admitted to knowing little about Iranian politics. Now all that has changed.

"I am a huge election protection advocate and free speech advocate. My friends joke that 45 days ago I knew nothing about the election. I just wasn't paying attention but now all I see is censorship and violence and that disturbs me.

Austin Heap
Austin says his life has not been his own since he started this project

"Today I still don't know that much but I love programming and I know I can make a difference. I know it sounds hippy, but that is what techies do.

"Technology is about collaboration. Everything builds on everything else. And that is the beautiful part is that we are all in this together," said Mr Heap.

Mr Colascione agreed.

"There is a quote I am fond of and will mangle but "never doubt that a small group of common people can change the world."

"This project gives me a sense of significance. This is more important than anything I have ever done."

While both men say their primary focus is on Iran they hope the software they have devised can be used in other countries. They have their sights set on China next.

"It's too cool to have an opportunity to help people," said Mr Heap.

"I love the power of the internet because we can chill behind our computer screen and not only do the right thing, but give people the uncensored internet back and let their voice be heard.

"We also get to take on a nutty government and I like that. I see this as a good versus evil issue," said Mr Heap.

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