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Rumors Of Blocking Instagram Worries Millions Of Iranian Users

Mohammad Qomi, Head of Iran's Islamic Propaganda Organization, attacksthe government for not controling the cybersapce in a speech to the Parliament. June 14, 2020.

The attack on Instagram by the Chief of the Islamic Propaganda Organization in an open session of the parliament on Sunday has worried millions of Iranian Instagram users about possible plans to block the popular social media platform.

Addressing the parliament on Sunday, Mohammad Qomi said between 60 to 70 percent of the country's bandwidth is taken up by Instagram where he alleged 30 percent of all cyber-crime, 25 percent of crimes of "immorality", gambling and "non-standard propaganda" takes place. "There is no control on the cyberspace," he charged.

Instagram became the most popular social network in Iran after access to Telegram was blocked by a judicial order on 30 April 2018. Facebook was blocked several tears ago. Many Iranians now use Instagram -- the only social networking platform that is accessible without using a VPN or proxy -- for personal entertainment, networking or business on a daily basis.

Along with the recent arrests of Instagram influencers, Qomi's remarks in the parliament have widely been interpreted as a sign that the authorities have an urgent plan to block access to Instagram and worried many Iranians who use it for business.

A Twitter user in a post on Wednesday said he knows a person in the rural areas of Sistan and Baluchestan Province who with a group of others takes traditional needlework orders on Instagram. "Everyday she comes to me and worriedly asks if Instagram is going to be blocked," she wrote.

On June 14 the Law Enforcement Commander of Qom said the police have identified 885,000 websites and accounts with "criminal content over 70 percent of which were on Instagram".

In most instances, when Islamic Republic officials refer to crime on cyberspace they are pointing to either social content violating Islamic restrictions or to comments critical of the regime.

Social media use is extremely high in Iran, with at least 60 percent of the population regularly using messaging services, which are particularly potent during protests and civil unrest. Iran has experienced repeated widespread anti-regime protests in the last three years.

Two days later the Deputy General and Revolutionary Prosecutor of Khorasan Razavi Province, Vali Qanbri-Rad said a case had been opened to identify Instagram influencers who "published obscene and immodest pictures showing them without the compulsory headscarf (hijab).

Qanbari-Rad said some of these influencers have been detained and others were released on bail. Those who said they regretted what they had done were ordered to participate "in cultural classes", he said.

Farid Modarresi a journalist in a Twitter post on June 15 said the attacks on social media are led by a hardliner group that want Instagram to be blocked before next year's presidential elections. "They want it to be done by the Rouhani administration so the next administration [which they believe is theirs] will not have to pay the political cost [of blocking the popular social network].

Hardliners may also be even more concerned about the role that Instagram -- particularly with its "live" option that practically provides an uncensored broadcast opportunity to rival candidates -- can play in the upcoming elections.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.