Twitter does its bit to beat the censors and get the word out

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Protesters and activists in Iran received a boost in their struggle against censorship and state control of the media yesterday when the social networking site Twitter postponed a planned period of maintenance at the request of the US State Department.

The US-based micro-blogging site has provided a key source of communication in the country in the aftermath of the presidential elections. The 90 minutes of offline maintenance would have left people in Tehran unable to access the site in the middle of Tuesday.

"We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication," a State Department official told Reuters yesterday. Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone told users that the maintenance had been cancelled because of "the role Twitter is currently playing". Mr Stone said that they had "noticed people creating accounts during the riots."

The state media in Iran is heavily regulated and urban dissidents have turned to the internet to communicate. The government has tried to block access to social-networking sites, but some Iranians have managed to find methods to circumvent these restrictions. Professor Andrew Chadwick, a co-director of the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that users had been playing a game of "cat and mouse" with the authorities. "Unlike other forms of technology, Twitter is a moving target," Professor Chadwick said.

"It is quite easy to establish proxy server connections to the service, so you can circumvent the official state blocking of access to Twitter."

Despite most messages on Twitter being in support of Mirhossein Mousavi, Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis, the London School of Economics' media think-tank, said that the users on the site may not necessarily be representative of the feeling in the whole of Iran.

"Twitter has grown from the Western world, and therefore it tends to be people that want to communicate with the West. [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's supporters are less bothered about that... if he had lost I think we would not be having a surge of pro-Ahmadinejad supporters tweeting away."