Iran made international headlines yet again last weekend, but for a change it was not a missile test or a bombastic statement from President Ahmadinejad: It was the government’s decision to block Facebook. So great was the international coverage and outcry that the regime quickly reversed course and unblocked Facebook on Tuesday.
On the one hand, the move to unblock the site is a welcome sign that the regime may be more susceptible to outside pressure than previously thought. On the other hand, this was not the first time the social-networking site was blocked. In fact, Facebook was still in the process of recovering members from the last “blocking season” when it got shut down again this past weekend.
The government’s censorship, with all its paradoxes and oddities, is a microcosm of Iranian society’s schizophrenic character.
Unlike previous times, though, the reasons for banning Facebook were clearly explained. With the June 12 presidential election looming, Facebook has become an ideal place for the reformist candidates, especially former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, to expand the reach of their presidential campaigns. At least in the virtual world, social-networking sites have proven quite inhospitable for the hardliner incumbent Ahmadinejad. “I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!” is the name of one Facebook group, whose number of members, mostly Iranians, already exceeds 43,000.
Yet when queried by a CNN reporter about the ban, Ahmadinejad denied any involvement. On the underground news-sharing site Balatarin.com (visited by tens of thousands of young Iranians via proxy servers), one user posted a sarcastic comment in response to the CNN report: “He’s right. My aunt has already accepted responsibility.”
The sudden ban and subsequent about-face on Facebook reflects the regime’s seemingly bipolar mania when it comes to online censorship. On a whim, or out of extreme fear of a bad word, entire sites disappear down the virtual-memory hole.
For instance, if you google “Dick Cheney” from a computer located in Iran, you will encounter a bright yellow triangle with an exclamation mark.
The Farsi text beneath reads: “According to the Islamic Republic’s laws and the judiciary’s order, access to this site is denied.”
Why the fear of Dick Cheney? Does it have anything to do with Iran’s dislike of right-wing hawks? Are all GOP members blacklisted? Are they trying to hide some truth about the former vice president?
The answer behind the mystery is pathetically pedestrian: It is because of Mr. Cheney’s first name. As the Iranian government’s formidable filtering ghoul is not intelligent enough to distinguish the innocuous uses of blacklisted keywords, any query containing the letters “dick” is doomed to face the “Access Denied” message.
Other searches that go nowhere include: “BREAST cancer,” “Gaza STRIP,” “SPERM whale,” “ADULT cold,” “VIRGIN Mary,” and “magna CUM laude,” to cite a few highlights. The results are almost comical, provided you are not an Iranian trying to access useful information.
Young Iranians grappling with the regime’s filtering system begin to learn the underlying rules that seem to drive the censorship parameters. Surprisingly, it is not impossible to search for terms like “democracy” or “human rights,” though resulting sites are generally blocked. Terms that don’t even make it to the Google results page include:
• Any word associated, directly or indirectly, with sex, including the word “sex” itself;
•Almost every single part of human reproduction system that has a name, along with any slang or literary synonyms;
•Every word possibly applied to a prostitute, along with the male equivalent “gigolo”;
•Prominent female celebrity names (including the word “celebrity” itself) like Marilyn Monroe (but thankfully not Marilyn Manson!), Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Lopez (but thankfully not J Lo!);
•Girlfriend, (but until very recently not boyfriend);
•Queer, but not homosexual;
•Sadism, but not masochism;
•Topless and also “toples,” evidently for those Iranians not very good at spelling.
Ironically, the censor software blocks Moralityinmedia.org, the Web site of an organization dedicated to fighting pornography. While all Israeli daily newspapers are accessible, the Web site of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s world-famous Holocaust museum, is blocked. YouTube and Flickr are open to Iranians, while MySpace lies beyond the great firewall. And for now Facebook is free, though yet another repeat ban seems likely in the future.
The black hole of infamy is indeed a fickle beast, swallowing innocent terms whole while randomly allowing others to pass along without incident. In one sense, the government’s censorship, with all its paradoxes and oddities, is a microcosm of Iranian society’s schizophrenic character. At the same time, the seeming randomness and the sudden changes are one of the regime’s weapons to limit the horizons of young Iranians while keeping us constantly off-guard. We have no right to freely access information and remain subject to the whims of the censors.
Oh, and DailyBeast.com? Blocked.
The writer, who uses a pseudonym for his own safety, is a university student in Iran.