Mark Zuckerberg, Jailbird in Iran? Facebook Better Call Its Lawyers

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In what is surely to generate a few gigabytes of free PR for the world's premier social network, an Iranian court in the province of Fars has issued instructions for Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (FB) to appear before the court in a privacy case.

While the chances of Zuckerberg showing up on the court date are about the same as Iran becoming a Western-style democracy in the foreseeable future, the case once again spotlights the bipolar relationship between authoritarian regimes and the Internet.

Six Iranian men and women found themselves arrested last week because they committed the "crime" of uploading a homegrown version of a popular music video on Facebook. Technically, they should never have been able to access Facebook since the government has banned the site, along with Twitter (TWTR) and Google's (GOOG) (GOOGL) Youtube, but technology and rebellious instincts often seem to get the better of such bans.

Yet, Hassan Rouhani, the moderate Iranian president has an active Twitter account, and even cryptically tweeted in support of the jailed Iranians. If he had a page on Facebook, Zuckerberg might do well to become a fan.

A study done a couple of years back shows the huge fan following Facebook and other Western sites have in Iran. It is estimated that more than one in two Iranians is on Facebook, and popular pastimes on the Internet include posting photos, sharing videos and blogging.

If an Iranian Facebooker is unfortunate enough to be caught, though, be prepared for the worst. Eight Iranian Facebook users were sentenced to jail terms ranging from eight to 20 years for crimes such as "blasphemy."

Those sentences appear to be a slap on the wrist when compared to what happened to Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti, who reported being tortured by the Iranian cyber police and who died in police custody.

As was seen in the events of the Arab Spring, social networks and now mobile chat services -- like WhatsApp, recently acquired by Facebook -- have a very disruptive effect on authoritarian regimes. The Iranian clergy-turned-ruling elite knows this. In 2012, Iran's "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the creation of the Supreme Council of Virtual Space to stay one step ahead of any Internet insurrection.

The body not only has government and law-enforcement representation but also is significantly dependent on Iran's Revolutionary Guard -- the state within a state -- that provides most of the cyberwarriors and "muscle" to suppress dissent in the electronic medium.

In this zeal to maintain its ideological purity, the Iranian establishment might be guilty of scoring a few points for the other team. Reportedly, the court order referred to Zuckerberg as a "Zionist director of the company Facebook," a statement that was gleefully picked up and highlighted by media in many countries.

Perhaps that realization seems to have dawned in certain quarters, and the latest reports on the issue quote an Iranian prosecutor denying any such court pronouncement happened in the first place.

Unfortunately, with their track record on matters such as this, the Iranians are going to have a hard time being believed by the rest of the world.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff

 

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