Will the Rouhani Administration be Successful in Lifting the Filter on Facebook?
This post was written by ASL19 researcher Mahsa Alimardani for the Iran Media Program.
When the Rouhani administration took office in an environment of pressing foreign and domestic issues, hopes for a more free and open internet were widespread among the Iranian populace and international community. The debate over whether Facebook will be unblocked in Iran rages on with significant ambiguity regarding who has the final authority on the issue. Although members of the moderate Rouhani administration are advocating for more online freedoms, including national access to Facebook, Iran’s hardline conservatives believe Facebook should remain filtered.
The December 2, 2013 Iran Newspaper headline: “The opinions of judiciary officials on Facebook.” Newspaper coverage of Facebook policy debate is influential in political discourse.
As the battle between the hardliners, reformist, and the Rouhani government continues, the question of who can ultimately decide this issue remains. Two key groups with power include the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC)* and the Judiciary. Presently, six members of the CCDOC are directly affiliated with the Rouhani administration. These include representatives of the Ministry of ICT, Culture and Islamic Guidance, Justice, Science, Education, Intelligence and National Security. The CCDOC, however, is managed by the Judiciary (not to be confused with Iran’s Ministry of Justice), which is typically a conservative body. For example, Iran’s Chief Justice, Sadeq Ali Larijani was directly appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Additionally, Khamenei’s office directly appointed the seven other members of the CCDOC, who maintain a much more conservative perspective on matters like Facebook.
While the Rouhani administration and its affiliates have adopted a decidedly liberal information policy stance, the opinions of Judiciary members carry significant influence. In a recent Iran Newspaper article, the Judiciary’s head of Statistics and Information Technology, Hojatoleslam Amir Shahriar, stated, “We are not against Facebook, but we are against the organization of national information to be used against us.” Furthermore, the Judiciary’s spokesperson confirmed that their opposition to unfiltering Facebook is due to the social network site’s role in empowering “foreign spy networks.”
Augmenting confusion about how influential specific Iranian governing institutions are, the spokesperson for Parliament’s Cultural Commission recentlyadded, “If the current government has any reasons to remove the filter on the social network Facebook, we urge them to present this evidence to the Cultural Committee of the House.” This signifies that the Cultural Committee of the House also has influence over any filtration decisions. Iran’s Parliament is currently a conservative majority, making Rouhani’s moderates a minority.
Confusion and ambiguity reign in the effort to change Facebook’s status within Iran. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera English, Culture Minister Ali Jannati stated, “All Iranians are using Facebook. Based on our figures, 4 million are members, so sooner or later the restrictions on it must be lifted.” However, both sides in this debate remain resolute in their opinions. The most recent news out of the CCDOC meetings indicate continued ambiguity. In a recent January meeting, the Minister of ICT, Mahmoud Vaezi, stated that the Committee has had constructive discussions, and has agreed that “anti-religious and immoral sites” will be blocked, while those that “do not instigate corruption” and increase public knowledge will be free to access. Thus far, Facebook has been categorized as both an immoral site and one that increased public knowledge.
Despite this debate, Facebook’s unfiltering is of little consequence to large number of Iranians already active on the site. Circumvention software for the Iranian Internet is ubiquitous. However, a Facebook policy decision would be a victory for the Rouhani Administration trying to make good on its promises of more open information access in the country.
*Note:The CCDOC is composed of 13 members including the Attorney General (head of the Judiciary, and consequently the head of the Committee), Minister of Intelligence and National Security, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Minister of Justice, Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Minister of Education, Minister of Research and Science, the Chief of Police, an expert on ICT chosen by Parliament, a member of Parliament’s legal committee (as chosen by this committee and approved by parliament), the head of the Islamic Development Organization, the head of the IRIB, and a representative of the council of Islamic Revolution