Iranians surf the Web at a cafe in Tehran in September.Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iran’s Culture Minister Ali Jannati joined a growing number of high-profile government figures on Tuesday, calling for Iran to lift its ban on Facebook and Twitter — imposed after the so-called Twitter revolution of 2009, in which social media were widely used to foment anti-government unrest.
“Not only Facebook but other social networks should be accessible, and the illegal qualification should be removed,” said Jannati, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Rioting and mass protests followed Iran's 2009 widely disputed election, which saw hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected.
But the election of moderate Hassan Rouhani in June of this year and the public embrace of Facebook and Twitter by high-level government officials — including Rouhani — has raised hopes that the blocking of popular websites would soon end. Such a decision would send shock waves around Iran, rated by Freedom House as one of the worst online-censorship offenders.
“Lifting the ban would mean a decrease in the security state that was created in the aftermath of the 2009 protests,” said Mahsa Alimardani, research manager at ASL19, an initiative based in Toronto that helps Iranians bypass Internet censorship.
“Lifting the ban could mean the Islamic Republic does not fear giving the Iranian people the freedom to access information.”
Jannati is only the most recent member of Rouhani’s cabinet to publicly declare support for unblocking social media.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif joined Twitter in September and has used the platform to wish Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah and condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Environmental head Masoumeh Ebtekar has a Facebook page with a couple thousand "likes."
But Rouhani, with over 122,000 followers, is more prolific on Twitter than anyone else in his administration and drew attention earlier this month when Twitter founder Jack Dorsey asked the president in a tweet whether people in Iran were able to read his tweets.
"As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right," Rouhani responded, quoting himself in an earlier interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
"Please let us know how we can help to make it a reality," Dorsey replied.
Although Iran has blocked Facebook and Twitter, millions of Iranians still access social media using virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies. Iran's deputy speaker of parliament acknowledged in January that 2 million Iranians have Facebook accounts.
But Facebook and Twitter remain officially off-limits, and anti-filtering tools are banned.
Internet-freedom advocates point to statements like Rouhani's, however ambiguous, as signaling a thaw in online censorship hastened by the election of a moderate president.
But bans on websites are considered internal security matters and as such fall under the purview of Iran's murky security apparatus. That means the moderates in power are not the ones to decide. That is up to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Supreme Council on Cyberspace.
"There's certainly more of a chance under Rouhani for greater Internet freedom than under a president like Ahmadinejad,” said Mahsa Alimardani, “but whether or not his authority will reach into this kind of decision-making is unknown.”
On Oct. 8, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology posted an announcement on its website that it had set up a working group to review the blocks on Facebook and Twitter, but it has issued no updates since.
A glitch in September gave Iranians access to Facebook and Twitter for a few hours, spurring rumors that the government was testing lifting the bans.
Before anyone celebrates these developments, Internet freedom advocates say it is important to remember that security states like Iran might have ulterior motives in permitting social-media use.
"It's fantastic that people are being given greater access to the online commons, but it's worrying if this is being done to facilitate greater surveillance of the population," said Morgan Marquis-Boire, a security researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
Marquis-Boire points to Syria, where social media sites were unblocked after the uprising began in 2011 only so the regime's security apparatus could better monitor activists and rebels online.
It is unclear just how many new users would flock to Facebook and Twitter if a ban were lifted, considering that the sites can already be accessed with circumvention tools.
But Marquis-Boire says unblocking social media could be pivotal in Iran, if only for the precedent.
“Much like the rest of the world, the Iranian populace has become more tech savvy, but if they open up access to Facebook and Twitter, it will enable a wider range of people to participate in the global conversation,” he said.