Iran’s Minister of ICT Discusses Open Access To Social Networking Platforms

In a recent visit to Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) the Minister of Communication and Information Technology of Iran, Mahmoud Vaezi, revealed the government’s openness in granting Internet users with open access to social networking websites. Mr. Vaezi recognized that access to free information is a civil right in Iran and even though it has been ignored thus far, this government is serious about pursuing it. He added that through Smart Filtering, access to social networking websites can be granted while restricting exposure to harmful online content.

Smart Filtering Program

While the details of the Smart Filtering program are still vague, according to the ministry this program is intended to protect Internet users from ‘harmful content’ while encouraging the use of valuable subjects that exist online. The Ministry believes that there is plenty of content on the Internet that can be beneficial to the users and the society as a whole. Thus, this program will allow access to such useful content while prohibiting exposure to unsuitable content .

Mr. Vaezi confirmed that there are three stages to the implementation of Smart Filtering. As of now, the government is on the second stage and anticipates to complete all three stages by the end of Persian New Year (March 21st). While the implementation of Smart Filtering is a challenging task, he reassured that the Ministry has an impeccable group of advisors and is allocating a substantial and unrestricted funding to 11 universities and research institutions that will make its implementation a complete success. The Minister believes through Smart Filtering, society would be able to have a clear understanding of, and access to, their rights as citizens.

Mr. Vaezi added that parliamentary officials and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance have reinvigorated debates over freedom of information and right to access free Internet. Currently, there are concerns over online content and its repercussions on society. Addressing it as a user protection issue, Mr. Vaezi admitted that it is a challenging task for all governments to protect Internet users while promoting freedom of information.

Rolling Back Facebook And Twitter Censorship

During Ahmadinejad’s presidency and after the protests in the contested Presidential Elections in 2009, Facebook and Twitter were censored and to this date, the general public’s access to these websites are restricted. The Parliament continuously supported the government’s strategy to restrict access to information and passing the Cyber Crime Laws in 2010, institutionalizing online censorship in Iran. However, the growing presence of government officials, including the Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Facebook and Twitter, has become the center of national debate when access to these websites are restricted to the rest of the population.

Following questions over government officials’ active use of censored social networking sites, Mr. Vaezi mentioned that the decision to filter Facebook and Twitter was reached in the past and before this administration took office. He added that when access is blocked, it is blocked for everyone. However, if a few officials who have International and diplomatic responsibilities are using these platforms, they have probably received permission from a higher authority, but his Ministry has not provided them open access to these websites. He concluded by saying that “most likely, these officials are active on Facebook and Twitter through the same techniques other people use to access these platforms”.

Meanwhile, Mr. Vaezi confirmed that the Ministry perceives access to social networking sites as a right to information, and announced that the Ministry is responsible to protect users from threats and ‘inappropriate content’.

Additionally, the Minister believes that the users play an important role in identifying threats and inappropriate online behavior. Therefore, the government has invested resources to publicize the appropriate use of social networks, while resisting pressure from other authorities. He declared his trust in users for making sure that they refrain from irresponsible and provocative activities. He reassured that lack of compliance by users would make protection a very challenging task for the government.

Right To Privacy

The Minister also recognized the government’s responsibility in protecting the privacy of Internet users as long as their online activities comply with national laws. He acknowledged how communication through social networking sites are a private matter and that the government would respect the privacy of each user unless there is a judicial order, in which case, all of their online activities are monitored.

Mr. Vaezi concluded by recognizing Smart Filtering as a potential effective plan to grant Iran’s Internet users access to free information, including access to social networking websites. He confirmed that the The Committee for Determining Offensive Contents has the final word on granting public access to these sites and it does not depend solely on the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, as they only represent one seat at this committee. However, the Ministry feels confident that by finalizing Smart Filtering, Internet users across the nation can have a safe and open access to social networking sites similar to Facebook and Twitter.