Battle Over Facebook and Twitter Access in Iran

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The word on the street is that the new administration in Iran wants to lift the current ban on Facebook access in that country. However, hardliners are vehemently opposed to such a liberalizing measure and thus it is by no means certain at this stage that the new President of Iran, Hassan Rohani, will be in a position to make good on this and other election pledges.

Hardliner Fatemeh Rahbar informed Fars (the quasi-official news agency in Iran) that Mohammad Reza Sadegh – an advisor to the new president – had discussed with a number of ministers the possibility of removing the Facebook block. Rahbar slammed Sadegh and demanded that he come clean as to whether the discussion meeting was convened on his orders or on the instructions of President Rohani.

Rahbar also promised the matter would be given a full airing in Iran’s parliament, which is still dominated by conservatives.

On November 20, Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, made a speech in which he nailed his colors to the mast, dubbing social media websites a weapon used by the enemies of Iran specifically to inflict damage on the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Khamenei singled out Facebook and Twitter as social networks frequently used both by Western activists and internal opposition elements to propagandize issues surrounding supposed Iranian abuses of human rights and restrictions on freedom.

Khamenei also pointed out that persons protesting against the re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran in 2009 did not hesitate to exploit their ability to access such social media sites.

Labeling protestors as nothing more than “seditionists”, Ayatollah Khamenei also drew attention to the U.S. State Department’s attitude to Twitter: In this case, the U.S. had requested the management of Twitter to delay implementation of a system upgrade. The upgrade would have sent Twitter offline temporarily and, in the opinion of Khamenei, the Americans wanted it to stay online so it could serve a propaganda purpose at a critical time.

Khamenei spelled out the intentions of Western interests who “were hoping to bring down the Islamic establishment through media activity and with the help of Twitter and Facebook.”

Support for Khamenei’s outspoken comments came from Fatemeh Rahbar, who argued that the true purpose and role of social media networks should now be obvious to Iran, not to mention the rest of the world.

Rahbar is of the opinion that the Islamic Republic should continue to crack down hard on Western social media sites, while at the same time promoting Iranian social media sites.

Ahmad Amirabadi, another Lawmaker, has also come out against ending the Facebook ban. Amirabadi thinks the Facebook filter is “positive” and should thus not be removed.

On the other hand, President Rohani appears to favor a liberalization of Iran’s policy on social media. And it is noteworthy that Rohani’s own cabinet members have been using Western social media sites, which in turn has fueled a debate inside Iran on the topic of opening up such sites to the public.

While it is currently possible for Iranians to dodge the blocks in place on various social media sites (using a raft of anti-filter tools), only a minority of people know how to do this. Therefore, the topic of lifting the social media ban is one hell of a deal in Iran round about now, and the battle lines are well and truly drawn: While many people, especially the young, would love to log on to Facebook and Twitter, hardliners are bitterly opposed to these sites, labeling them tools of Zionist and Western interests.

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