* Internet is an opportunity, not a threat-Rouhani
* Social media played big role in 2009 unrest
* Iran needs online access to develop, educate, president
* Rouhani's call for Internet access a contrast to
By Mehrdad Balali
DUBAI, May 20 Iran should embrace the Internet
rather than see it as a threat, President Hassan Rouhani has
said, in remarks that challenge hardliners who have stepped up
measures to censor the Web.
Rouhani, a comparative moderate elected last year, said
trying to win the battle for public influence by restricting the
Internet was like bringing a wooden sword to a gunfight.
The weekend speech distances Rouhani from rival conservative
clerics, some close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
who promote censorship as a tool for protecting the 1979 Islamic
revolution which brought the Shi'ite Muslim clergy to power.
It was also his most forceful signal yet of a break with the
social media policy of predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who
rounded up bloggers and tightened online controls in an
eight-year term, especially after protesters used social media
to organise mass street demonstrations in 2009.
"We ought to see (the Internet) as an opportunity. We must
recognise our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web,"
said Rouhani according to the official IRNA news agency.
"Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner,
grabbing onto a shield and a wooden sword, lest we take a bullet
in this culture war?" he said in his weekend speech.
"Even if there is an onslaught, which there is, the way to
face it is via modern means, not passive and cowardly methods."
Iran has long had a contradictory attitude towards the
Internet. Access to sites like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube is
blocked for most Iranians, but Khamenei himself joined Twitter
and Facebook in 2009 and is now a prolific user of both.
These days the Supreme Leader often sends out more than a
dozen tweets a day in English, Farsi and Arabic. His latest
informed his 53,900 followers that "Despite industrial progress
in the #West, negligence & humiliation of #family & its values
will cause West to collapse in the long run."
On his Facebook page, where he has 82,000 "likes", Khamenei
offers spiritual guidance, telling those seeking a spouse to
accept compromise: "a perfect flawless wife or a perfect
flawless husband cannot be found anywhere in the world."
Yet Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, secretary of a state committee
tasked with monitoring and filtering sites, last year called
Facebook a U.S. espionage project.
Iran's leadership cracked down hard against Internet users
in 2009 following Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election that
year, when a violent crackdown on street protests led to the
worst unrest in the Islamic Republic's history.
Many bloggers were jailed and at least one person was
sentenced to death for running a website seen by the authorities
INTERNET USE HIGH
Iran's Internet users face slow, patchy connections as well
as heavy filtering. Still, they can evade controls by using
virtual private networks which provide encrypted links that
allow a computer to behave as if it is based in another country,
giving them access to blocked sites.
In his speech, Rouhani compared the effort to restrict
access to the Internet to an earlier, failed attempt to combat
the spread of satellite television.
"First, our entire obsession was video - how to keep it out
of our youth's access and protect our faith and identity. Then
satellite dishes shot up on roofs," Rouhani said. "Today, the
Internet and smart phones have become the foremost woe."
Rouhani said Iran could not develop without embracing the
digital world and criticised the idea that students should just
take notes from books rather than go online.
"Are our PhD students still expected to use library archives
like in the old days to take notes for research?"
Internet censorship has eased somewhat under Rouhani's new
government, Iranians say, but he lacks the power to open it up
At the apex of Iran's power structure, caution abounds.
Decisions on key strategic matters fall under the authority of
Khamenei, who set up an internet oversight agency, the Supreme
Council of Virtual Space, two years ago.
In a decree, he said the agency would shield Iran from harm
from "the increasing spread of information and communication
technologies, particularly that of the global Internet network
and its important role in personal and social life."
Iranian media have said the agency includes the president,
the information and culture ministers, and the heads of the
police and the conservative Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps
(IRGC), a powerful military organisation close to Khamenei.
Iran has also been the target of cyberwar attacks, including
a computer virus that corrupted software in nuclear centrifuges
and caused them to self-destruct. Security experts believe the
United States and Israel were behind it.
(Editing by Sylvia Westall, William Maclean and Peter Graff)