Yesterday in Iran, members of the Iranian public had an ever so brief expansion of their online worlds. For just over half of the day, internet users in certain parts of the country did not need to resort to using proxy IPs and other extraordinary means to access social media sites, and the reaction that the media has reported was surprisingly muted, though excited.
Since 2009, in the midst of protests following a disputed election, Iran has blocked access to Facebook and Twitter, among other social media sites, following their usage to organize and galvanize protests against the regime of then-president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Recently, the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had supposedly used Twitter to wish Iranian Jews a shana tova (happy new year), potentially signaling a détente between the new regime and the West and Israel. The brief opening of the social media sites prompted speculation of signs of further détente and potential loosening of social media laws.
Unfortunately, these hopes have not come to pass and the Iranian government has once again closed off access to Facebook and Twitter. Officials have blamed the “problem” – if you could call it that – on a technical glitch and that the official policy of Tehran remains that Facebook and Twitter are illegal. Moreover, according to the above cited BBC article, the Iranian government denied that the account used to sent out the tweet wishing Iranian Jews a shana tova was not an account belonging to the president. Détente chilled – for now. It has been confirmed, however, that foreign minister Javad Zarif is using Twitter.
For governments that restrict basic freedoms, such as association or speech, the problem with openings – however slight they may be – is that the openings can tend to become chasms and grow wildly out of control, much like the falling of communist regimes in eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is my hope that the Iranian government reconsider its policy on social media access and restore the freedom of association and speech that, while still limited, existed in the moments leading up to the Green Movement and subsequent protests. Iranian/Persian society has a long and rich cultural history that I think is important to share and opening up the nation to the free(r) interchange of ideas and cultures will help that.
Eventually, I think, the time will come where either the use of proxy servers to circumvent Iranian firewalls or the open revolt of the people will cause the government to reconsider its position. Once the box to explore the world and universe has been opened, it is impossible to close.