Iran Bans Facebook (For the Second Time) Before Presidential Elections

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Update (May 27, 2009): A few days after Iran’s ban on Facebook, the site is now restored and available to Facebook users in Iran. The government gave no reasons as to why the site was initially blocked and then reopened.

This weekend there has been much talk about Facebook users in Iran not being able to access the Facebook site. This marks the second time that Iranian authorities have banned Facebook, the first being in 2006 when Facebook was banned along with YouTube. Facebook was since unblocked and has climbed to become one of the most popular websites in Iran.

But Internet users around the world were skeptical of Tehran’s reopening of the site. As Christophe Ginisty of Internet without Borders says, “During election periods, as in the case of Iran, it allows the government to give the impression that it is offering more freedom. But that’s absolutely not what’s happening, because the first thing that happens following an opening is that filters and controls are established. It means they reopen Facebook when they have the possibility to put people in place who can control it.”

But apparently, that hasn’t been the government’s strategy this election season. On Saturday morning, Facebook users in Iran logged in to Facebook to find that the site was no longer available. The timing of this Facebook ban comes less than 20 days before presidential elections on June 12, when incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadirejad is running for re-election against reformist candidate and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. The ban is seen by many to be an effort to stop Mousavi’s growing political campaign on Facebook: his Facebook Page now has over 6,000 supporters.

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The 23 million Internet users in Iran are perhaps angry and frustrated, but they aren’t surprised. Internet censorship in Iran is severe, if not harsh. In 2008, the government blocked 500 million websites and arrested four bloggers, making its way to the “Internet Enemies” list. Censored content ranges from politics and religion to women’s and human rights.

In the recent U.S. presidential race, we saw how online platforms like Facebook and Twitter can change the potential for increased political communication – not just measured in reach, but also in the depth of conversation and engagement. And in this case, the Iranian government is feeling threatened by the power of the social graph to sway history against its favor.