Facebook is the enemy
I’m back home in Iran for holidays, checking my emails. A friend has just sent me a link to her birthday party pictures, but something’s wrong. A message on my browser pops up, saying the website I’m trying to access is dodgy, with criminal or harmful content on it.
‘Well, luckily it’s blocked,’ I tell myself. ‘But hold on a second, it’s a link to her Facebook page.’ I remember now. Facebook is blocked in my country. I try her Instagram. It opens her profile, but the pictures won’t load. Frustrated, I call a few friends. They say Instagram has been ‘smart filtered’ lately.
‘It sometimes works. Try late at night,’ one friend says. I guess I’ll just see the pictures when I return to London.
Iran’s government under President Hassan Rouhani announced in December 2014 that it was implementing a new internet censorship policy. Where the old methods were to block websites and social networks, this change would promote a more moderate view, only filtering out the pages with alleged criminal content.
As for who decides what shall be banned, there has long been a Workgroup for the Determination of Criminal Content that will now have to review thousands of users’ profiles to evaluate the safety of their contents. The bright side is, there might be some job opportunities, if you’re looking.
The new approach is called ‘smart filtering’. According to Fars news agency, Iran’s minister of Communications said in February:t ‘We follow a policy based on which everyone can use sites and networks that we believe do not have any criminal content.’
He got clearer on the subject as he went on: ‘What we want by smart filtering is to, without blocking social networks, restrict access to pages with criminal content.’
He was referring to those few social networks that still remain unblocked, such as Instagram. ‘Rich Kids of Tehran’, a page on the popular photo-sharing platform depicting luxurious lifestyles of the capital’s young élites, was one of the first victims of the new filtering policy.
Known as a moderate politician, Rouhani and his government were expected to reconcile people and the ruling élites, particularly on issues over people’s rights and freedoms, including the right to have full access to information on the internet.
As far as public statements go, he has not disappointed. ‘We cannot close the gates of the world to our younger generation,’ he said in a speech broadcast on state television, according to the BBC.
In December 2013, he joined Twitter and has regularly tweeted ever since, although the social network was, and still is, banned and blocked in Iran. As reported by Iranwire.com, Rouhani also complained in a press conference in August 2014 that downloading an article could take so long one can fall asleep at the computer.
Since Iranians first went online, there has always been some level of control over what they have been able to access. In the aftermath of Iran’s controversial 2009 elections, the existing restrictions were tightened as opposition groups and activists used social networks to organize protests.
Later, when public unrest subsided, the limitations imposed on internet users stayed in place. With Rouhani’s election in 2013, hopes with regard to internet freedom – along with other hopes concerning reform – began to rise.
Before the elections, in an interview with Chelcheragh magazine, Rouhani had expressed discontent with internet censorship, saying all it did was ‘heighten the wall of mistrust between people and the government, as well as damage the country’s economy’.
In all fairness, the government’s policy towards internet-based messaging services has improved somewhat. As part of a power struggle with the Workgroup for Determining Criminal Content, which is partially a subset of Iran’s judicial system, there have been conflicts for months over banning messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Viber, etc.
The president’s intervention to prevent blocking those apps brought angry remarks from hardliners. Last September, the judiciary gave an ultimatum to the government to block messenger apps within a month.
They remain accessible in Iran to this day, although the subject is every once in a while brought up by conservatives here and there, and the threat has never fully gone away.
Since the new government came to power, online activists and dissidents have been monitored and arrested more often.
Hadi Ghaemi, director of a group monitoring internet repression in Iran, told International Business Times he believed there had been an ‘uptick in arrests under Rouhani‘ and called it ‘a campaign of intimidation’, for which he held the judiciary and intelligence services responsible.
According to The Independent, Soheil Arabi, a 30-year-old Iranian man, and Roya Saberi Nejad, a 47-year-old British-Iranian woman, were detained in 2013 for ‘insulting Islamic sanctities’ via posts and comments on Facebook.
The BBC has also reported on ‘Project Spider’, launched in January by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to target the producers of ‘immoral, vulgar and obscene contents’. Simply put, some more Facebook users were arrested.
Users of internet-based messaging apps did not get away with their ‘immoral’ deeds either.
In October 2014, a local state TV, channel broadcast confessions of 11 messenger users, charged with offending Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, by spreading jokes about him.
This was followed by a warning from the head of Iran’s cyber-police force, claiming they could monitor private messages on Viber and WhatsApp, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
The power struggle continues. The judiciary blocks and bans, intimidates and imprisons, while the government, supposedly representing the people, only introduces new ways of restriction, under the guise of protecting from criminal content, while more halal (safe) content is allowed..
Under the circumstances, there seems to be no sign of any serious intentions to lift the ban placed on currently blocked sites.
There’s one thing I’m sure of, though: the best way for me to see my friend’s birthday pictures on Facebook is to fly back to London.
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