In what may be a precursor towards moving the entire country onto an internal version of the Web, Iran has blocked access to Gmail and the secure version of Google Search.
"Due to the repeated demands of the people, Google and Gmail will be filtered throughout the country until further notice," Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, a deputy minister charged with Internet regulation, told the FARS News Agency on Sunday (Sept. 23). Khorambadi said the decision was a response to growing outrage over the “ Innocence of Muslims " video, which has incited violent, anti-American demonstrations in several Middle Eastern and African countries.
Some Iranians received the news in the form of Khoramabadi’s quote in a text message.
Critics paint the government's move as an effort to block access to competing ideologies and tools that can be used for populist organization, but the government insists it's not. Instead, Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Reza Taqipour, said the move would prevent other countries from compromising Iran’s state secrets.
Although ordinary Iranians have access to the World Wide Web, it's anything but unfettered. Narrow filters, wholesale blockades of sites like YouTube and the routine shuttering and censorship of social sites like Facebook and Twitter provide a crippled experience that has come under attack from democratic and human rights advocates in the past. Iran has always maintained that these policies are not aimed at censorship, but meant to "protect" citizens from offensive material.
Mahmood Tajali Mehr, an Iranian telecommunications expert in Germany, told the BBC that Iranians routinely bypass government firewalls with VPNs (virtual private networks) to access blocked Western sites. "Every schoolchild knows how to bypass restrictions by using VPNs, it's very common in Iran."
The unsecure version of Google Search without the secure "https" prefix is still available in the Islamic Republic; but the lack of security eliminates any guarantee of privacy.
Iran routinely censors and blocks Internet material as it suits the government's needs. Google's services were cut off earlier this year amid a national election, for example.
If Iranians are truly to be cut off from the Internet that the rest of the world uses, it will undoubtedly choke the flow of information and lead to a less-free society; however, the recent Stuxnet and Flame attacks that breached government computers and wreaked havoc on a nuclear facility give some credence to Khoramabadi's statement. Government computers are already on the internal network, however, which could have already mitigated the security problem without invoking policies that dramatically curb access to news and communications.
The Iranian public will reportedly be completely switched over by early next year, but one lawmaker told the Iranian Students News Agency that this won't completely seal off the country.
"Cutting access to the Internet is not possible at all, because it would amount to imposing sanctions on ourselves, which would not be logical," Mohammad Soleimani said. Naturally, external Internet access would be preserved for the upper echelons of government power so his statement hardly clarifies what the new Internet rules for the average Iranian will be.
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