Page last updated at 13:45 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

The web makes the personal political

Bronze soldier, AP
Some took protests about the relocation of the Bronze Soldier on to the web

To accompany a major series on the BBC about the impact of the web, Rajan Malhotra, assistant producer on the Virtual Revolution, writes about how it is changing politics.

The chaotic streets of Tehran, the collapse of an Estonian bank, the surveillance of Chinese citizens - not necessarily images which spring to mind when you think of the world wide web.

But as I learned while working on the second episode of The Virtual Revolution, the web is more than just a colourful box of tricks. Amidst the celebrity tweets, inane YouTube videos and shopping sites, a struggle is taking place.

As the web empowers the ordinary citizen and gives a voice to the masses, so it has equally strengthened the hold of governments around the world. Freedom versus Control is an age old battle that has now moved to the web.

Spread the word

In June 2009 the disputed Iranian presidential elections spilled over into protests and violence. Social networking site Twitter took the protests online.

As opposition protests were quelled, so tweets describing the chaos flew around the world. The Iranian government, well known for its attempts to filter and control the web, had no answer to the streams of information flowing out of Iran.

Twitter alerted the world to a reality which, with mainstream foreign media banned, may have never otherwise been revealed.

Iranian protests. AFP/Getty
Post-election protests in Iran turned violent

The Virtual Revolution visited the hub of this "citizen journalism", Twitter HQ in San Francisco.

Housed in a nondescript building, there couldn't have been more than 30 staff working when we arrived. It seemed hard to believe that this was the site Iranians turned to in such a time of crisis.

Even the company's unassuming founders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, seemed surprised by Twitter's conversion from a siphon of trivial chat to a political tool. Perhaps that is the beauty of the web - it can empower any individual.

One such was Austin Heap, an IT whizzkid from San Francisco who looked like he'd fallen straight out of a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster.

Responding to the tweets from Iran, Austin and his friend Daniel Coloscione provided their own form of cyber-help aka Haystack. The software provides unfiltered, anonymous web access for Iranians. Austin demonstrated how Iranians could use it to bypass the filtering mechanisms imposed by the authorities.

From a loft apartment in San Francisco, Austin had shown how the web can overcome national, cultural and social boundaries - with a computer and internet connection, anyone can begin to challenge authoritarian control.

Cyber attack

But if Iran had shown how the web can empower the masses, events in Estonia in April 2007 showed how the "empire" can strike back.

Konstantin Goloskokov, Aleks Krotoski
Konstantin Goloskokov has no regrets about the attacks

The catalyst was the relocation of a statue - The Bronze Soldier of Tallinn - from the city centre to a secluded cemetery. It triggered two nights of rioting in the Estonian capital.

Ethnic Russians were outraged by the moving of a national icon that symbolised Soviet victory over Germany in the Second World War and the Red Army's "liberation" of Tallinn. For many Estonians the statue was a symbol of Soviet oppression.

The retribution did not end with the riots.

Just days after Estonia, one of the most wired nations on Earth, was hit by a sophisticated cyber-attack that flooded sites with data requests.

It paralysed Estonian bank, news and government websites. Known as a Denial of Service attack the source of the flood was traced to Moscow.

The self-proclaimed architect of the attack was Konstantin Goloskokov, a Commissar with the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.

Mr Goloskokov was no older than 23 or 24 and had no regrets about the attacks.

For him, the internet represented the fastest and most effective way for avenging what he perceived as an attack on his nation's honour. Who needs hand-to-hand combat when you can create a botnet and attack an entire nation from the comfort of your own desk?

Although he was at pains to point out that the Russian government were in no way involved in the attacks, many of the Estonians we spoke to regarded it as an attack by the Russian state.

Twenty years ago, as the web was born, it would have been difficult to imagine that it would start to evolve into such a powerful social and political tool.

But that is just what the web is becoming - from the Chinese government's attempt to control the blogosphere through its own "50 Cent" army of bloggers to tweets and status updates from the Iranian protestors, the web might be on the way to becoming one of the most powerful weapons of our time.


The second episode of the Virtual Revolution will be broadcast on 6 February at 2015 on BBC2



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