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Internet freedom in Iran defended by president Rouhani

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani has spoken out against Internet censorship in a provocative speech on Sunday in a live broadcast on state television.

In his speech he also addressed other issues like gender segregation and the enforced wearing of head scarves or hijabs, reported the Middle East Eye. Iran routinely filters online content of social media sites and other popular sites, among which are Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For those that dare, these sites are only accessible through the use of illegal software. Many people break the law regularly to gain access to banned sites. 

Authorities in Iran also deliberately make the Internet slower, so that certain websites are inaccessible to the population. This is done especially with regards to mobile access to the Internet, which the government fears can be used to spread immoral photos and videos, or participate in street protests.

Rouhani's government, however, recently made the decision to authorize faster 3G mobile Internet licenses for two Iranian service providers last month, reported Middle East Monitor. This is a first step toward making Internet access easier for the people of the country.

In his statement, Rouhani commented that filtering content was counter-productive.

"Some people think we can fix these problems by building walls, but when you create filters, they create proxies," Rouhani said, according to the Middle East Eye.

People use proxies to circumnavigate government firewalls which block access to certain sites. 

"This [current policy] does not work. Force does not produce results," he added. 

Rouhani's decisions anger religious clerics 
The 3G licenses decision also caused controversy with conservative clerics and officials arguing that video call functions on smartphones could expose youngsters to "immoral content." Iran's ministry of telecommunications, technology and information recently informed the public that video calling services such as Skype and Facetime would not be available on the 3G network though still available on regular Internet connections, reported the Middle East Eye.

Tehran's municipality recently implemented a plan to segregate staff by gender, a move that conservatives applauded. Rouhani made a point of mentioning this in his speech, calling for gender equality. He argued that the Islamic republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, strongly opposed segregation in universities after the 1979 revolution.

On the issue of obligatory hijabs for women, Rouhani gave sharp criticism.

"We have experienced so far that social values and the wearing of the head scarf cannot be upheld by soldiers and police officers," he said. "Our virtuous women should feel safe and relaxed in the presence of the police."

Many clerics view Rouhani, who took office last August, as being too liberal and soft on limiting immorality.

Hassan Rouhani was elected president last year after promising to bring a moderate approach to social issues. His predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rigidly conservative.

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