Hassan Rouhani Is Bringing Internet Freedoms Back To Iran, One Tweet At A Time

On Tuesday, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani declared the Internet "an opportunity" and urged the Iranian government to relax current Web bans. Rouhani, who has a Twitter account — where he occasionally retweets pictures of Persian leopards — asked Iranians, "Why are we so nervous? Why don’t we trust our youth?" President Rouhani's speech comes after four years of internet censorship following the disputed 2009-2010 elections and subsequent Green Revolution Movement, also known as the "Twitter Revolution."

The revolution prompted then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to ban Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter. However, Rouhani, who is perceived by most as being more moderate than his predecessor, has hinted that he may not agree with the current internet bans (one big hint is his Twitter account). After he was elected in 2013, Rouhani urged his cabinet to open their own Facebook pages.

Since, Facebook is banned in Iran, the pages were available through a proxy server, but they still caused some confusion. Some users wrote on Iranian forums that the pages might not be real, but a quick look at the pages reveals they are far too boring to be pranks. Needless to say, most of the pages' number of likes are still in double digits. Don't worry, Rouhani, it's hard to be a social media maven in a country that bans Facebook!

Last week, Rouhani took another small step for internet freedom when he intervened in a dispute over the banning of WhatsApp, vetoing the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content's decision to outlaw the use of the app. Rouhani's veto demonstrates a growing rift between the president's more moderate policies and the wishes of other powerful Iranians, specifically Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Khamenei is thought to be more conservative on the issue of internet freedom, although, strangely enough, he also uses Twitter. Khamenei only has 54,000 followers compared to Rouhani's 199 thousand, but maybe that's to be expected from a man who wants to ban online chatting between men and women — it's safe to say he isn't a big fan of Tinder.

So, what does the Rouhani-Khamenei rift mean for ordinary Iranian internet users? Rouhani's efforts to change current internet policies have been slow. In the past, he hasn't spoken so openly about the need to embrace the Web, and even his words on Tuesday may have a limited impact. The aftereffects of the 2009 bans are still being felt strongly in Iran today.

Earlier this month, seven bloggers behind Narenji, an Iranian website similar to Mashable, were jailed after being accused of working with groups active during the Green Revolution. While WhatsApp escaped banning, thanks to a little help from Rouhani, other messaging apps have not been so lucky. Last week, the Iranian government blocked Viber, Google Sites, and several Wikepedia pages.

According to Reuters, Iranians say internet censorship has diminished somewhat so far, but internet connection is still patchy and VPN use is rampant. Journalists and internet activists continue to be jailed under the new Rouhani administration, and access to the internet may soon become more limited, as the purchase and use of VPN software was made illegal last week.

Rouhani's government has said it will use "smart filtering" to censor sites, so that the only pages blocked are those considered immoral. While this technique is supposed to ease some of current Web bans, the government says the smart filtering technology is still being perfected, and one has to wonder what possible criteria will be used to determine immorality on the internet. After all, you could probably make the case that many, many things on the internet are immoral.