TEHRAN: The tattooed young Iranian initially sparked wonder and some envy when pictures of him with scantily-clad, heavily made-up women, often more than one at a time, went viral. In a morally conservative country, the obvious breach of a female dress code was one thing. When the people who patrol Iran’s heavily filtered Internet found out, the man known only as Vahid landed in jail. The scandal has also provoked a wider debate about smartphone use and the technology used to share content. No report of Vahid’s phone being stolen was ever filed, according to police, and his plight has darkened since he was detained and publicly shamed with pictures of him in handcuffs and head in hands making the front page of several newspapers. The committee is Iran’s highest IT regulator and it decides which websites and services to censor.

Facebook and Twitter remain blocked in Iran but are accessed by millions using easily available software. It also skirts other restrictions — a banned satellite television channel has attracted 800,000 subscribers on its Telegram channel, where comic material is easily shared.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s moderate president, has spoken regularly about how attempts to block websites do not work. But when new pornographic content surfaced, the app’s owner Pavel Durov accused Iran of blocking the service, only to apologise later when it emerged that bandwidth problems were to blame. The debate over inappropriate content has also triggered conspiracy theories about Telegram and calls for a clampdown. With a high-level of smartphone use and 70 percent of Iran’s population having access to the Internet, mobile apps have transformed social lives.

Vahid’s case, however, has shown how private lives can quickly become public with unintended consequences. As well as facing possible criminal charges, several of the women he was pictured with have launched legal action against him, saying they were duped. Children and teenagers use it to chat while youths organise their social and love lives on it. With Internet use rising each year among a population of 78 million, he has said a fresh approach is needed to tackle abuse.

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