Last month, members of Iranian President Hassan Rohani's cabinet decided to expand their social media presence by using proxy servers to launch their own Facebook pages. It began when Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, announced that he and his children were updating his public page, which currently displays 205,000 "likes."
At least fourteen other cabinet ministers reportedly followed.
Iran's notoriously strict censorship laws prohibit the use of social media platforms, but since Rouhani took in office in August, "authorities appear to be showing a greater tolerance on social, cultural and media issues," reports the AFP. The Facebook pages, notable for critical posts from other Iranians, were interpreted as " an attempt by the new government to be more open and interactive with the country’s Internet-savvy youth," who are still blocked from Facebook.
According to Radio Free Europe:
Amid the debate, the head of the task force in charge of online censorship and computer crimes, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, has announced that his group will take a close look at the content on cabinet ministers' Facebook pages. "Some claim there has been criminal content posted on such pages, which the task force has to study and give its view [on]," Khoramabadi said over the weekend.
It wasn't clear whether he was referring to posts by officials themselves or the critical comments many Iranians have posted on officials’ pages.
The block on social media was interrupted briefly Monday night when anti-filtering software made Facebook and Twitter momentarily available to users in Tehran. The Washington Post called it "a very rare occurrence" since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2009 reelection, when the sites were blocked to limit the opposition's ability to organize protests.
A status update on one Facebook user’s page minutes after the site became accessible read, “God has freed Facebook!”
However, the human rights group Shurat Hadin Law Center, which specializes in "Pro-Israel Lawfare" maintains that by providing this platform for Iranian ministers, Facebook is guilty of both violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and "sponsoring terrorism."
The letter to addressed to Mark Zuckerberg (embedded below) says:
As I’m sure you are aware, the State and Government of Iran is under numerous sanctions by the United States government. Under various laws, regulations and Presidential Executive Orders administered by the US Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) goods, technology, or services may not be exported, re-exported, sold or supplied, directly or indirectly, from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever located, to Iran or the Government of Iran. See http://www.treasury.gov/resource-cente...
Please be advised that providing social media and other associated services to Ministers of the Government of Iran is illegal under the OFAC administered sanctions regime.
John Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Treasury Department told Valleywag that those sanctions don't necessarily apply here.
I can’t comment on specific companies, but it has been our longstanding policy to help facilitate the free flow of information in Iran and with Iranians. That is why we have issued general licenses authorizing the export of certain services, software, and hardware incident to personal communications including social media.
Sullivan said the 2010 provision allowing the "export of instant messaging, web browsing and other communications technology to Cuba, Iran and Sudan" still stands. He also pointed to a newer general license from last year.
Just today, Reuters reported that an American company called Just Host shut down the website of Mehdi Karoubi, a reformist cleric, in order to comply with U.S. sanctions, noting:
Iranian officials and opposition figures alike have criticised the sanctions for blocking vital imports, while dissidents say they hurt their ability to organise.
We have reached out to Facebook for comment on whether the ministers' pages will be shut down and will update the post when we hear back.
Considering that Zarif was just recently given Twitter's blue check of approval, tech CEOs seem less concerned with violating sanctions and more with helping to usher in that democratic tide they're always going on about.
Thanks. The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial, sir. “@JZarif: Happy Rosh Hashanah”— sfpelosi (@sfpelosi) September 5, 2013
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Letter to Facebook Re Iranian Ministers 13 9 16 Doc (Text)