Our Observer Melody took this photo of the error message that appears when she tries to access Google.com.
Iran may have blocked access to Google and Gmail, but that doesn’t mean that Iranians aren’t still using the world’s most popular search engine and email service.
The government officially announced that it had blocked Google.com and Gmail.com on Sunday “due to the repeated wishes of the people.” State media reported that this decision was tied to the fact that YouTube, which is owned by Google and has been blocked in Iran since the 2009's ‘Green Revolution', had not censored “The Innocence of Muslims”, an anti-Islam video that caused a wave of violent protests throughout the Muslim world.
Iran also routinely blocks social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and temporarily blocked Google in the run-up to March’s parliamentary elections. The government has plans to put in place a nationwide intranet that would be free of any objectionable, anti-Muslim content – and which could make it easier for authorities to monitor the flow of information. The Information Ministry has said this did not mean they would ban the regular, world-wide Internet, though some Iran experts worry that the government is trying to discourage people from using it by creating a faster and more easily-accessible intranet.
“It’s like we are living in a big jail cell”
Mina, 28, is a graphic designer who lives in Tehran.
Now when I try to use Gmail, Gtalk, or even just Google search, I get an error saying that it is impossible to connect to the server. However, by using a VPN [virtual private network software, which is illegal to use], I am still able to access them. Everyone in Iran knows Gmail is the most secure email service, and that we should avoid Yahoo! Mail or others because they are not as safe. Many Iranians use Gtalk to share things like news, rumours, and photos with their friends. So this has made people quite angry, especially those who are less tech-savvy and don’t know yet how to use a VPN or a proxy server.However, this ban will just push them to learn. Still, using VPNs and other such software slows down your Internet, meaning pages load more slowly and it’s much harder to share large files like photos and videos. The Iranian government is making it more difficult for millions of people to use the Internet for business, research, or their own personal interests. However, the government’s main fear is people using the Internet for social or political change [like Iranians did to organise street protests in 2009]. It’s like we are living in a big jail cell.
“People of all ages have learned to use VPN technology – even my 75-year-old father!”
Reza is an Iranian expatriate living in Australia.
I get most of my news about what’s really going on inside Iran from Facebook, where people posts lots of photos, videos and other updates. Facebook is also blocked, of course, but all my friends and relatives back in Iran are on it. They use VPNs or proxy servers to gain access to banned sites. People of all ages have learned to use this technology – even my 75-year-old father! He uses his VPN to log onto Facebook all the time. And then there’s always the phone – my parents use a phone card to call me every day.The main problem in Iran is bandwidth. I often send little video clips of my baby to my parents to show them his progress, but I have to compress the video into very poor quality so that they can download it. As communications technology gets better and better, the Iranian regime is doing all it can to keep communication difficult. So Google, with its many practical products, was an obvious, smart target for them. Recently, when I heard about Google Drive – a new service where you can upload files to an online storage space – I thought, that will be great, because it seemed that with this my friends and relatives in Iran would be able to share higher-quality videos. Maybe it’s innovations like these that scare the regime. But I think this ban will just be a bump in the road, and that Iranian Internet users will quickly adapt.
“The most worrying issue is not the website bans – it’s the government’s use of cyber spies”
Omid Habibinia is an Iranian expatriate living in Switzerland, where he works as a journalist.
This ban - and the government’s desire to limit Internet use in general - concerns me, because the Internet is still the safest way I can contact sources in Iran. We usually communicate on Gtalk and Gmail, so this ban has been quite a hassle – on Monday, none of my sources were online. But many are now back, thanks to VPNs and proxy services. I am also able to speak with many of them through Facebook chat.The government is trying to take total control of the Internet, but it’s not so easy to control the country’s millions of users, many of whom communicate information to friends, journalists, bloggers, and activists abroad. The most worrying issue, to me, is not the website bans, which my sources can find ways around – it’s the government’s use of cyber spies. We have to be very careful and use secure connections to avoid getting our emails hacked.