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In Wake of Public Outcry, Iran Lifts "Indefinite" Block on Gmail After One Week

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, October 1 2012

Gmail and Google search are accessible in Iran again, one week after an official announced that both platforms would be blocked "indefinitely."

The block was lifted after members of the legislature complained, with one of them, according to Reuters, threatening to summon the minister of telecommunications to parliament for questioning if access to Gmail was not restored.

Mohammad Reza Aghamiri, a member of the council of Internet filtering — yes, it really exists — told the quasi-official Iranian news agency Mehr that the block on Gmail and Google search had been an unintentional consequence of an attempt to "reinforce" the existing block on YouTube. According to Aghamiri, the Ministry of Telecommunications wanted to prevent access to Innocence of the Muslims, the crude and controversial anti-Islam film that sparked demonstrations across large swathes of the Middle East in mid-September. The 20-minute film was uploaded to YouTube.

The government has blocked YouTube in Iran since 2009, when protesters posted videos of anti-government demonstrations. Aghamiri claimed that blocking Google's two most popular platforms was the unintended consequence of re-upping the block on YouTube, to prevent Iranian Internet users from seeing and being offended by the film, which is a rabid criticism of Islam and the prophet Mohamed.

There is no mention in the Reuters article of whether or not reporters asked Aghamiri how his claim that blocking Gmail and Google search had been unintentional jibed with the widely reported official announcement, issued last week by Abdolsamad Khoramabadi of the state-run body responsible for censoring the Internet, that they had been intentionally blocked.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) points out that the timing of the block on Gmail and Google is a bit suspicious: The "unintentional" block "just happens" to coincide with the government's launch of its state run "National Internet," with its own email service — which requires users to register by submitting their full name, address, phone number and identity card number, then wait 24 hours to be approved.

The regime has had technicians working on a "Halal Internet" since 2002, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration stepped up the process with the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, especially after various cyber-attacks on its nuclear installations.

Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by the launch of this national network because, as well aiming to satisfy the security concerns cited by the authorities, it also aims to step up control of online information and surveillance of netizens, especially government opponents and human rights defenders.

Iran watcher Collin Anderson told Ars Technica's Cyrus Farivar that the one-week block of Gmail and Google search "...is somewhat of a warning to users that unless they switch to a national e-mail service, they could lose access at any time."

RSF notes that National Internet's servers will be in Iran, rather than in the United States, and that it will offer better bandwidth and faster speed. An Iranian journalist explained:

"This is a ploy by the regime. On the one hand, they are creating a national Internet with a good connection that only allows you to visit permitted websites. On the other, a weak and filtered connection to the international network. I don’t see why Iranian Internet users should accept this. At the moment, the regime needs money and I don’t think they are ready to lose Internet users and their subscriptions."

The Iranian government currently filters or blocks hundreds of web sites, but wealthy, tech-savvy people circumvent these obstacles via a Virtual Private Networks (VPN). As we reported a few weeks ago, the government knows that people are using VPNs to access blocked sites like Facebook; this was apparent in August, when young middle class Tehran residents overtly used Facebook to organize grassroots aid convoys for people living in the earthquake struck region in the northeast.

The government's tacit acceptance of VPNs means that it knows the poor and less educated are those who are primarily affected by official censorship. But the National Network would also affect VPNs, according to RSF. It will be interesting to see how — or if — upper class Iranians respond when they, too, are prevented from accessing their favorite websites for news and information.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.