Middle East

Iraq lifts ban on Facebook and Twitter

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq (C) shakes hands with Iran's ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaifar at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad July 1, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

DUBAI: Iraq has lifted a 17-day social media ban imposed to disrupt the communications of armed militants who have seized much of its west and north, although about 20 news websites remain blocked, industry sources said Tuesday.

One source said Iraq had come under pressure from foreign non-governmental organizations to end the ban but the state telecoms company did not explain why it had done so.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which Sunday declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi caliph of the Muslim world, is the driving force behind the rebellion by Sunni groups and has used social media to publicize its agenda.

The revolt, which began with the June 10 capture of Mosul, prompted state-run Iraq Telecommunications and Post Company to block some social media platforms on June 13, Reuters reported last month.

These included Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube.

The ban was lifted Monday, according to Martin Frank, chief executive of Sulaymaniyah-based Internet provider IQ Networks, and three industry sources who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Neither ITPC – which owns almost all fixed line networks outside Kurdistan – nor the Communications Ministry responded to requests for comment.

About 20 news websites, including those of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned TV station Al-Arabiya remain blocked, two sources said.

Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of funding Sunni insurgents in Iraq, a charge the two Gulf states have denied.

Separately, the government has lifted restrictions on virtual private networks that were also imposed in mid-June, the sources said.

VPNs enable users to appear as if they are accessing the Internet from elsewhere, allowing them to dodge online restrictions.

In a third apparently related move, the government has again permitted mobile data use outside conflict areas, two sources said. Mobile data includes instant messaging applications such as WhatsApp.

This followed last month’s nationwide ban on such services from Iraq’s three mobile operators – Zain Iraq, part of Kuwait’s Zain, Ooredoo unit Asiacell and Orange affiliate Korek.

Iraq has yet to allow 3G services and only basic websites and services are available over 2G.

The ITPC has periodically shut down the Internet in Iraq in recent weeks, although such blocks are only partly effective because Kurdistan’s networks are beyond its control.

The most recent major outage took place on June 22 and lasted for a total of five hours, according to Renesys, a U.S.-based firm that carries out real-time analysis of Internet routes and traffic.

Videos posted online showing the killing of Iraqi soldiers and Shiites, whom ISIS considers to be heretics worthy of death, have helped the jihadist group recruit disaffected Sunnis and intimidate its enemies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 02, 2014, on page 9.




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