Iran’s telecommunications agency announced what it described as a permanent suspension of Google Inc.’s email services, saying a national email service for Iranian citizens would soon be rolled out.
It wasn’t clear late Wednesday what effect the order had on Gmail services in Iran, or even if Iran had implemented its new policy. Iranian officials have claimed technological advances in the past that they haven’t been able to execute.
A Google spokesman said in a statement, “We have heard from users in Iran that they are having trouble accessing Gmail. We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic, and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly. Whenever we encounter blocks in our services we try to resolve them as quickly as possibly because we strongly believe that people everywhere should have the ability to communicate freely online.”
An Iranian official said the move was meant to boost local development of Internet technology and to build trust between people and the government.
The measure was announced on the eve of the culmination of celebrations to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic. Competing plans for pro-government and antigovernment demonstrations have set the stage for clashes between authorities and opposition protesters, who have taken to the streets repeatedly since contested presidential elections in June
The move marks another effort by the regime to close the gap with its opposition in controlling Iranian cyberspace, according to Internet security experts. The government has a tight grip over old media—television, radio and newspapers—but learned during the unrest following the contested election last June that the opposition and its supporters dominated new media, including social networking Web sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“The primary purpose for doing this is to control communication and mine that communication, so the government can crack down on dissenters and people who threaten the government,” said Richard Stiennon, founder of Internet security firm IT-Harvest, based in Birmingham, Mich.
“If the government can induce the population to use a state-controlled email service, it would have access to the content of all of those emails,” he added.
The Iranian regime has been intensifying a crackdown on supporters and leaders of Iran’s opposition. Part of the government’s efforts have involved tracking the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity of Iranians around the world, and identifying them at opposition protests abroad, say former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran’s elite security force.
Blocking an email service like Gmail is fairly simple, according to Mr. Stiennon, particularly in a place like Iran where the government controls the nation’s telecommunication infrastructure, and largely the service providers that depend on it. The regime, through its telecom arm, the Telecommunication Co. of Iran, could block the domain name address of Gmail, so that the country’s estimated 23 million Internet users would no longer be able to access it, he said.
Google could theoretically change the address of its email service in Iran, but ultimately if the government wants to block the service from its network it could do so, he said.
Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian online activist in Toronto, said he experienced disruptions using Gmail Wednesday afternoon with friends in Iran. Usually, Gmail works without problems, he said. Gmail replaced Yahoo as the most popular email service in Iran in the past year because users believe it is the most secure, or the hardest for government censors to crack, he said.
Users in Iran on Wednesday also reported to Mr. Kowsar that all their Gmail contacts were shown on their computer screens as being “offline,” when that wasn’t the case, he added. “I was able to use the Google chat for about 10 minutes, but it was on and off,” said Mr. Kowsar.
“The government is doing this because it wants to control everything,” he added. “That is the only reason behind this.”
Other countries have taken similar steps as Iran, but usually not for a specific email service. China has blocked Twitter and Facebook, among a host of other sites and services. Pakistan, among other countries, tried to block its Internet users from accessing YouTube, Google’s online video site. That botched attempt disrupted YouTube access outside of Pakistan as well, and had the effect of diverting those trying to access the site in other countries to servers in Pakistan.
In Iran, the government and its supporters have tried for months to reign in the opposition’s effective use of the Internet to get news out to the rest of the world. Earlier last year, the Revolutionary Guard announced it was creating 10,000 bloggers to spread its views. The presence on social networking Web sites like Twitter of supporters of the regime grew during the crackdown on protest. Some regime supporters sent messages, or “tweets,” designed to disrupt opposition plans, or cloud the site with offensive messages and images.
Still, these efforts haven’t prevented a flood of online information about the protests from reaching the world. Opposition members and their supporters have honed their communication skills, taking advantage of video, still images and text messages posted on blogs and news Web sites to chronicle their latest antigovernment action.
Google’s Gmail is one of the most popular of the Western email services in Iran; it appeals to the country’s younger generation, which has formed the backbone of the opposition movement.
Iran’s announcement adds to Google’s mounting international woes. The fate of its China business is up in the air, after the company said it would stop censoring its search results in compliance with Chinese law, responding to a major cyber attack it suffered and said it traced to the country. Since Google announced the move last month, executives have said it has gotten more difficult to do business in China in recent years but that they are hopeful they can continue to have some operations in the country.
In the wake of Google’s recent tussle with China, the latest development intensifies the discussion about the company and free speech on the Internet, according to Jonathan Zittrain, a co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.
“Through a series of circumstances, Google is now firmly enmeshed in a fundamental debate about Internet freedom,” said Mr. Zittrain. “I would be very interested to see if it cooks up ways to get to Gmail in cases where it is blocked.”
What makes the Iran government’s step unusual is that the move isn’t about censorship, but about surveillance, Mr. Zittrain added. By having the country’s email users on a government-issued email service, the government will have a window into communication that it couldn’t otherwise have.
Google’s announcement that it was working with the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, to help with its problems in China might have factored into Iran’s decision to no longer allow Gmail use in the country, said Mr. Stiennon. “Iran could view that as a significant risk to its security,” he said.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it couldn’t confirm whether Iran planned to suspend Google’s Gmail, but it said any efforts to keep information from Iranians would fail.
“While information technologies are enabling people around the world to communicate … like never before, the Iranian government seems determined to deny its citizens access to information, the ability to express themselves freely, network and share ideas,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.