The Washington Post
TEHRAN, Iran Iran blocked access to Facebook on Saturday in what opposition candidates said was an effort to sabotage their challenges to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Facebook has become hugely popular in Iran, where young urbanites have become avid users to connect with friends, play online games and share photographs. Recently, lively discussions had taken place on the social-networking Web site among Iranians who wondered whether voting in the June 12 presidential election meant supporting Iran's system of clerical rule, or, as some argued, could be used to remove Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad's three opponents also used the site to spread campaign messages that, until recently, had been ignored by Iran's government-controlled national broadcaster.
On Sunday afternoon, when Iranian Shiite cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi wanted to check the latest election discussions on Facebook, he found that it had been blocked by authorities.
"The government wants to prevent all free discussions on the elections," said Abtahi, a former vice president and adviser to Mehdi Karroubi, one of the challengers, who advocates more civil rights.
"I had more than 3,000 friends," Abtahi said in a telephone interview. "Those people used the site to discuss freely, something which unfortunately is not possible in our national media."
"We used Facebook to be in direct contact with the voters," said Saleh Behesti, 22, an industrial design student who helped organize the Internet campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has mounted the most serious challenge to Ahmadinejad.
"We had 6,000 people on Facebook sending information on Mousavi's speeches and meetings out to all their friends," Behesti said. On Saturday, 20,000 people turned out for a Mousavi campaign rally in a Tehran stadium. "Without Facebook we would have never been able to gather so many people," Behesti said.
Iran, like many other countries in the Middle East, frequently blocks Web sites, mainly those with sexual content. Decisions on blocking are made by a group known as the Council for Determining Instances of Filtering, consisting of members of the government, judiciary and intelligence. Many Web pages voicing criticism of Iran's political leaders are blocked. But major Western media sites, as well as YouTube and the photo-sharing site Flickr, are accessible.
The filtering is carried out by the Ministry of Telecommunications, which distributes Web connections to Iran's Internet providers. "We have no control over the filtering at all," said an employee of an Internet provider. "Their technology to block sites is improving all the time."
Internet use in Iran has mushroomed. According to Internet World Stats, a marketing company that tracks usage worldwide, about 23 million of Iran's 68 million people have Internet access, making the country one of the most connected in the region.
Facebook was blocked soon after the site started in 2004, but three months ago, authorities made it available. Iranians, many of whom have relatives in the United States and Europe, quickly joined and started adding friends. Iranian fan groups span such varied subjects as traditional poetry and fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana.
"Every person became a medium on Facebook. It was completely new for Iran," said Maysam Allahdad, 28, a popular blogger from Tehran. He noticed people who he thought could not even turn on a computer registered for Facebook profiles.
"On Facebook, everybody discussed everything," Allahdad said. "Unfortunately, our government can't accept any other voices apart from those that they can control. Facebook made a difference."
"I wanted to keep in touch with my friends," said Nazanin Daneshvar, 25, who added 160 friends in three months. Many of them had left Iran, she explained. "Through Facebook I saw where they where, doing what. Now I will write e-mails again."
Many Iranians use special software to reach government-blocked sites, but it seriously slows the already-sluggish connection speed, making it nearly impossible to watch video clips or flip between pages.
The government is attempting to revise the laws governing Internet use. Recently, Iran's parliament ratified an amendment to the media law requiring all owners of "e-publications" to register at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture. It is unclear whether foreign Web sites used by Iranians also fall under that law.
"Facebook is not in the interest of the government," Behesti said. "Youths were being energized to vote, but not for them. So they closed it."
There was no official reaction from Iranian authorities.
"I don't have a Facebook page," said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the president's press adviser. "I've never even heard of Facebook. Please ask someone else."