The Iranian election protests of 2009 was a turning point for the public's understanding of the importance of social media and the impact of new web-based communication tools. During the protests that followed the election results, the Iranian government shut down every type of traditional media outlet and even spied on online forums and social networks. Twitter and Youtube prevailed as news sources for the world, particularly for anxious families, during the media blackout, so much so, that Twitter was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. However, because export restrictions and political sanctions against Iran prohibited the downloading of software, other location and media sharing tools were not able to be an intermediary for user generated news. This week, those restrictions were lifted meaning that software download based products such as Google Earth, Chrome and Picasa are now freely available in Iran.
The availability of Google Earth in Iran is significant as only recently the Iranian government was outraged to discover a Star of David on top of the Iran Air building, their national airline HQ. The emblem had been on top of the building for over 32 years but was only recently discovered using Google Earth.
It's interesting to note that the software download restrictions were not originally imposed by Iran, but actually via western political sanctions. There is a hint of digital diplomacy (diplomacy 2.0?) in this announcement as maps, photo sharing and browsers have been allowed but will not be made available to anyone with IP addresses associated with Iranian government. Which, in light of the Iran protests, strongly suggests that US government has a new-found respect for the role of user generated content as a news channel and respects social media as a tool for empowering the individual.
And one does not need to look back far to find evidence of it's effectiveness - just last month Twitter and Google Maps were used to co-ordinate a student protest in the UK and avoid potential trouble spots.