When Iran's supreme leader got a Facebook page in December, Iranians sat up and blinked.
Some thought it was a fake, finding it hard to believe that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be using a technology that his own government blocks. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman skeptically wondered how many "likes" it would attract.
But some of Khamenei's supporters quickly rallied behind the move, which first came to light in a reference on — you guessed it — the ayatollah's Twitter account.
Iran has one of the highest percentages of Internet access in the Middle East, but the number of sites Iranians can legally visit is extremely limited. The government has launched "cyberpolice units" charged with tracking those who try to visit banned Internet or social media sites.
When Khamenei turned to Facebook, Iran's millions of computer users allowed themselves to hope that it might lead to an unblocking of social media sites. Not so: They still have to pick the government's cyberlocks to access the latest thoughts from their own leader.
Of course, Facebook is not the only site Iranians want to visit, and that's what has the authorities worried. After security forces crushed massive street protests after the controversial 2009 election, activists took their dissent to the virtual world — where they now find themselves under increasingly aggressive attack.
"The fight in the online space is not over," says Reza Ghazi Nouri, an activist who fled to Turkey when he was threatened with years in prison for his support of pro-reform candidates.
Death Of A Blogger
Nouri's research into Iran's Internet and social networking communities shows the increasing ability of government cyberpolice units to learn the identities of online writers, some of whom are then arrested, interrogated and tortured.
One example came last November. A blogger named Sattar Beheshti was arrested for critical comments posted on Facebook. His death in custody after allegedly being tortured provoked international condemnation. Still, Nouri believes it had the desired chilling effect.
"Because when you torture somebody to death for blogging and writing on Facebook, you're not just killing him, you're oppressing and frightening millions of other people," he says.
Security analyst Theodore Karasik at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis says after being caught off-guard by the huge protests of 2009, the government has gotten much more savvy at stifling dissent online as well as in the streets.
"And it's not unusual for someone to get followed, or to conduct their Internet or social media sessions in another house or another location that they think is secure when in fact it really isn't," Karasik says. "Indeed, there is a crackdown ongoing, and will probably only get worse with the development of an Iran-only Internet."
A Call For Internet Freedom
Technology analysts have debated Iran's effort to seal off the country from the rest of the cyberworld. Karasik sides with those who believe it can be done, while others doubt that a hermetic cyberseal could be maintained.
There are tools, such as VPNs, or virtual private networks, that allow Iranians to disguise their computers' identity. But according to Nouri, the Iranian activist, some of the most affordable VPNs on the Iranian market are supplied by the Revolutionary Guard itself, and provide no protection whatsoever. The crucial obstacle at the moment, he says, is organizing.
"The problem is, you can have safe communications between two, three or four people, but when you try to organize an event, you have to communicate with thousands of people, so that's not working," Nouri says.
The increased pressure has caused many opposition supporters to deactivate their Facebook accounts. Still, the authorities are preparing for a spike in activism as the June presidential contest approaches. Nouri says if the international community really wants to help pro-democracy forces in Iran, it should invest in Internet freedom there.
Meanwhile, the ayatollah's Facebook page seems to be thriving. As of late January, it had racked up nearly 30,000 "likes."
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