Iranians had a few hours access to Facebook and Twitter before a web firewall went back up and Tehran scotched talk of new internet freedoms by blaming a technical glitch for the brief opening of access.
Late on Monday, several people in Iran found they could log in to their accounts on the US-based social media sites without circumventing blocks on Twitter and Facebook that the state imposed four years ago during a clampdown on the biggest protests since the Islamic revolution.
That prompted speculation it might herald a broader easing of censorship under president Hassan Rouhani; last month, he succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose re-election in 2009 sparked the demonstrations – in which social media played a part.
However, access was blocked again yesterday, and an official involved said the brief lifting of the embargo at some Iranian internet service providers was probably caused by a technical malfunction.
“The technological committee is investigating this issue,” Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, secretary of a state panel that filters sites, told Iran’s Mehr news agency. Service providers were being investigated, he added.
One Iran expert based abroad said controls had briefly been removed across a wide range of sites, including online pornography, supporting the view that it was a glitch.
Another, however, said Mr Rouhani’s new administration might be considering easing restrictions on sites that remain popular among Iranians able to get around the domestic firewall – and which senior government figures, and even Iran’s clerical Supreme Leader, have used to convey their messages.
“I strongly believe it was a technical glitch because all websites that support SSL were available in the country last night, even porn websites,” said Amin Sabeti, a British-based expert on the internet in Iran. SSL is a web security tool. Mr Sabeti added: “Iran has invested millions of dollars for its filtering system and it is clear that the regime will not give up internet censorship very easily.”
Nonetheless, there have been signs in that direction. Mr Rouhani, a moderately reformist cleric, pledged to relax some social controls during his campaign for June’s election. New, US-educated, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has Facebook and Twitter profiles and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to have taken to global social media to publicise ideas.
Many Iranians use proxy servers to trick systems into believing they are outside Iran to access foreign social media. Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, who lectures on Iran at Manchester University, said the authorities might experiment with ways of allowing access to the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as they do with search site Google, while blocking some activity. “I think we could be seeing a partial unblocking of Facebook, in which some search results are filtered, but others are not.”
Arash Tajik, an IT administrator in Tehran, said he believed the brief opening might have been an experiment by the authorities: “They are testing what will happen if they remove the filter and whether they can control the situation or not.”