Iranians managed to log onto Facebook and Twitter on Monday — without the help of anti-filtering software — for the first time since 2009, when the Islamist government blocked the sites to prevent anti-government activists from using them to organize demonstrations.
Internet users in the country celebrated. "God has freed Facebook!" one user posted, according to The Washington Post. But the elation was short lived: Access was cut off again on Tuesday, with officials blaming the fleeting taste of social media on a glitch.
Iran's critics tweeted their disgust:
Just kidding! Twitter and Facebook blocked again in Iran. http://t.co/OChAmaaaqf Was just a glitch. Classic Iran.
— Slade Sohmer (@SladeHV) September 17, 2013
But The New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink says the unblocking of the social media sites, however fleeting, might have been a sign that Iran's new president, reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani, is trying to deliver on promises to ease up on internet censorship. Here's what Erdbrink, one of the few Western journalists based in Tehran, says he's hearing in Iran:
Insiders say the glitch could have been caused by infighting between groups seeking to reopen the websites, who are struggling with hard-liners who continue to control the hardware to block websites. [New York Times]
Iranian hardliners have called Facebook a "Zionist tool," Erdbrink says. Since taking office in August, Rouhani and several of his ministers, however, have begun challenging the old guard's tough line on censorship, opening their own social media accounts and using them to comment on domestic issues and world affairs, including the crisis in Syria. Rouhani, on his official Twitter account, wished Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah this month.
Arash Tajik, an IT administrator in Tehran, tells Reuters that Iran's censors turned off the filters deliberately, but never intended to allow access for long. "They are testing what will happen if they remove the filter, and whether they can control the situation or not," Tajik said.
Still, skeptics caution against making too much of this brief taste of Facebook and Twitter, noting that Facebook access flickered on once before when state filtering tools were updated. And, as Yeganeh Torbati points out at Reuters, "any move to ease control will first have to be approved by the ruling establishment of conservative clerics and security officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."
In other words, don't get your hopes up. Sometimes a glitch is just a glitch.