Reporters Without Borders condemns the government’s latest offensive against the Internet coinciding with celebrations marking the Islamic Revolution’s 31st anniversary. Online access has again been disrupted, as it is whenever opposition protests are expected.
In major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Ahvaz and Shiraz, Internet connections have been slowed right down, restricted to certain neighbourhoods or entirely suspended in some areas for the past few days. Some mobile phone companies have blocked the sending of SMS messages since the evening of 6 February.
The authorities announced yesterday that they were permanently blocking access to Google Mail and would instead create a national email service. The Wall Street Journal quoted an Iranian official as saying the purpose of this move was to promote the development of national technologies and to increase the population’s confidence in the government.
Google confirmed that there had been significant decline in Google Mail traffic to Iran and said this was not due to a technical problem on its part. It also said it was aware that Google Mail users in Iran were having difficulties in accessing the service.
“The Iranian government has never hidden the fact that it regards new media, especially the Internet, with the utmost suspicion because of the very visible presence of its opponents on social networks,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Its response is to slow or sever connections in an attempt prevent its critics from organising and prevent damaging reports and images from circulating within the country or being sent abroad.
“Blocking Google Mail takes the drive to control Iranian cyber-space to a new stage and officialises the war already launched against website-based email services, which are harder to monitor and which have won over the public by their use of Farsi. But this strategy is doomed to failure. Most Iranian Internet users know how to sidestep censorship and access blocked websites and pages.”
The press freedom organisation added: “As for the creational of a national email service, if it really goes ahead, we doubt that it will be a success because no one is fooled. Its aim would be to increase online surveillance.” Reporters Without Borders points out that a “national Intranet” announced a few years ago never materialised.
The Iranian authorities are able to block access to the Gmail domain name because they have direct control over the telecommunications infrastructure and indirect control of Internet service providers. But Google Mail can still be accessed via proxy servers. Several users told Reporters Without Borders they are still able to use the service by employing tools for circumventing censorship.
Use of Google Mail was already disrupted several times recently on the eve of opposition demonstrations. Users were able to write messages but not send them. According to accounts obtained today by Reporters Without Borders from inside Iran, Google Mail has been hard to access for several days because connection speeds have slowed right down.
Regarded as safer than its rivals, Google Mail is very popular in Iran and is used by many dissidents. The government’s announcement comes on the heels of Google’s unveiling of a new social-networking service, Google Buzz, which can be accessed directly from within Google Mail and facilitates the distribution of information. Google Mail has also just started to routinely encrypt all communication between users and the website, which must have made it harder for the Iranian authorities to intercept messages.
Given that the Internet and, in particular, social-networking services such as Twitter and Facebook played such a major role in circulating information about the protests against the results of last June’s presidential elections, it is not surprising that the authorities took a dim view of the emergence of a new social network.
Unable to control the new media, the government has responded by resorting to cyber-attacks, filtering and blocking undesirable websites, including conservative sites at times. It has also developed its online surveillance capabilities, it has put government propaganda online and it has made many arrests. But it still has not been able to stop unwanted information circulating online. At least 18 bloggers and netizens are currently detained.
The US authorities have condemned the decision to block Google Mail as an attempt to deny access to information but they said they were convinced that Iranians would find a way to overcome the obstacles that their government put in their way.
This is not the first time that Google has had a run-in with a government that restricts Internet access. The company announced on 12 January that, following hacker attacks on the Google Mail accounts of several dozen activists in China, it would stop censoring the results of the Chinese version of its search engine, even if this meant withdrawing from the Chinese market. Google is currently in talks with the Chinese authorities.