TEHRAN // One month after Iranian authorities unblocked Facebook, the social networking website has seen its popularity soar among Iranian youth, who see it as a great way to find and stay in touch with friends and share interests, including political views. Since Feb 3, Facebook has jumped from the 29th most visited website in Iran to the 12th, according to Alexa, an international internet information company that lists the top visited websites around the globe. Facebook was unblocked around Feb 4 with no explanation from the authorities, much the same way it had been blocked in September. "I became a Facebook member last year and when it was blocked I forgot all about it. Earlier this month quite by chance I realised that it was no longer blocked," said Solmaz Kheirollahi, 27, who works at an international risk-management company. "Before it was unblocked, the only way to get on Facebook was to use a proxy server, which made the process extremely slow and many people gave up altogether." "Now that it is unblocked, everyone is Facebooking like crazy. People are sending friend requests all the time. Almost all the young people I know, friends and colleagues, are now members and even some people in their 40s and 50s have joined." Saeedeh Rahmati, 28, an assistant manager in an oil and gas company, however, is on the website almost every day, either making postings, changing her profile photo and adding other photos, or inviting people to be her friends.
"I have made 67 Facebook friends since I joined three weeks ago," she said. "Through Facebook I found some long-lost friends and met some new people. I get a lot of messages from my friends and I get to know what everybody else is up to, what they like, about causes that they support and find out who they are friends with." Ms Rahmati also uses Facebook to promote causes. She recently joined a Facebook group that supports making Nowrouz, the Iranian new year, part of the UN calendar. She has sent messages to her friends to join her and 47,000 others in supporting the cause. Some Iranian Facebook members have also used the website to promote their political views. There are pages dedicated to Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president who is standing against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in elections in June. One such group for Mr Khatami has more than 13,000 members. Mr Ahmadinejad's supporters in Iran, however, have not yet used the medium. There are several groups in support of him but their members come from countries other than Iran, including India, Morocco and Indonesia. Last month, two websites run by supporters of Mr Khatami were blocked by authorities, who said the pages undermined national solidarity and tarnished the image of the Islamic republic. Millions of websites, most of them with explicit sexual content, are blocked in Iran. Some blogs, as well as news portals, belonging to various political groups, both domestic and international, are also blocked.
A committee consisting of representatives from several state bodies has the responsibility to decide which websites should be blocked by internet service providers. The internet is very popular in Iran where 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30. An estimated 23 million Iranians have access to the internet but only 7.5m are regular users, according to the government. Iran is also said to have the biggest number of bloggers in the world after China. In Alexa's ranking of the most popular websites in Iran, Google came first and Yahoo! second, with Blogfa, an Iranian blog provider, in third place. The seventh most popular website, according to the same list, is Cloob, an Iranian social networking website similar to Facebook. Cloob claims to have more than 660,000 members. Cloob says its profiles, fan groups, albums and postings are strictly monitored to assure the pictures and stories do not breach any of the laws of the Islamic republic. Iran has laws related to the violation of an individual's privacy including posting photos or other content without the subject's permission and publishing sexually explicit material on the internet. The law passed by parliament in 2007 allows infringement to be punished by cash fines and prison terms. firstname.lastname@example.org