Why is social media vetting not trending?
That photo was taken by me during a qawwali devotion at the Nizamuddin Dargah, Delhi during Ramadan and first appeared On An Overgrown Path in 2014. Despite being a kafir I have tried during my thirteen years of blogging to present a fair and balanced view of Islam. In fact my attempts to be fair have, I know, caused some readers to think I am too sympathetic to the Islamic cause. But now those attempts have turned round and bitten me, and the story needs telling .
My travel plans for 2018 included Iran, a country whose present regime I have little time for, but one with a rich cultural history that just begs to be explored. But as my travel planning progressed I came across the recently introduced requirement in the Iranian visa application process to provide details of social media accounts. Now sympathetic to the Islamic cause I may be. But entering Iran into the Overgrown Path search box returns some posts likely to give the mullahs heart attacks. Such as one containing this quote from the sleeve notes for an album of Rumi settings by Iranian singer Ali Rheza Ghorbani: "Those who in other times, have crucified Hallāj and Sohravardi, do not hesitate nowadays to oppress dervishes in Iran, demolish their schools or Khaneghah and their sanctuaries, ban their gatherings, imprison them and persecute them in a thousand different ways".
Then of course there are my numerous posts about Sufism, a mystical tradition frowned upon - or worse - by the Iranian theocracy. And the UK government travel advice for Iran states that many Western CDs remain illegal, which means my iPod Classic with its 160 GB of mainly Western music could pose problems. All of which means I am unlikely to get into Iran*. Or more seriously, if I got in I may not get out. So my planned trip to Iran has been shelved and there will be no photo essays here about the Imam Reza shrine or Iran's many other cultural riches. But there are much more serious implications to this vetting of social media than an aborted trip.
The Iranian government's explanation for the recently introduced measure is that it is a response to the introduction in July of social media vetting for Iranian passport holders by the US government. This is a very dangerous development. The criteria for denying entry into the US or Iran based on social media vetting is unknown. As the US - the 'policeman of the Western world' - has set the precedent for this, how many other countries will follow. For instance will Morocco, a country with an autocratic administration, follow suit? Will I need to be more cautious in the future what I write about Morocco, or about the US coming to that?
With online vetting the decision of visa or no visa is a subjective call by persons unknown using criteria unknown. And the process is not just confined to visa applications. In a survey 48 per cent of hiring managers said they check the social-media and digital footprints of candidates. About a third of the managers admitted to rejecting potential candidates because of questionable personal or professional traits they noticed online, while automated vetting software for corporations and governments is big business. So we are moving into an age where having an opinion about issues of the day may result in marginalisation. Where will this end? Will we be asked to provide details of social media accounts before booking a restaurant to make sure we don't write adverse reviews? - which is not as far fetched as you may think. Or will you need to declare your online activities before booking BBC Proms tickets to make sure you are not an Overgrown Path contributor?
There has been only limited recognition of the dangers posed by online vetting. Guidance issued by the EU Article 29 working party which represents all EU data protection authorities has stated with regard to job applications that unless social media posts are relevant to the role being recruited and applicants have been clearly warned that online vetting will be used, the applicant's privacy rights may be breached. While in the US recent state-level legislation in Illinois and Maryland barred employers from asking job applicants for social media logins.
Online vetting is a threat to at least two fundamental human rights: freedom of speech and free movement across frontiers. It is one of the many paradoxes of our social media fixated age that the as yet unknown negative impact of Brexit on free movement has become an online obsession, while the very real negative impact of social media vetting is attracting so little attention. Maybe the explanation is that most social media users have nothing to fear, because their obsessive online outpourings say nothing at all.
* There is no definitive information on entry criteria for Iran. Information from any readers with first hand experience of the Iranian visa process will be gratefully received. Please contact me via a comment on this post. Your communication will be picked up in the moderation process and will not be published unless you request. Algeria is also on my 2018 travel wishlist; the same information on the entry requirements for Algeria would also be valuable.
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