TEHRAN – Iran’s cyber monitors often tout their fight against the West’s “soft war” of influence through the Web, but trying to block Google’s popular Gmail appeared to be a swipe too far.
Complaints piled up – even from email-starved parliament members – and forced authorities Sunday to double down on their promises to create a parallel Web universe with Tehran as its center.
The strong backlash and the unspecific pledges for an Iran-centric Internet alternative to the Silicon Valley powers and others highlight the two sides of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing battles with the Web. It’s spurred another technological mobilization that fits neatly into Iran’s self-crafted image as the Muslim world’s showcase for science, including sending satellites into orbit, claiming advances in cloning and stem cell research and facing down the West over its nuclear program.
But there also are the hard realities of trying to reinvent the Web. Iran’s highly educated and widely tech-savvy population is unlikely to warm quickly to potential clunky homegrown browsers or email services. And then there’s the potential political and economic fallout of trying to close the tap on familiar sites such as Gmail.
“Some problems have emerged through the blocking of Gmail,” Hussein Garrousi, a member of a parliamentary committee on industry, was quoted Sunday by the independent Aftab-e Yazd daily. What he apparently meant was that many lawmakers were angry and missing their emails.
He said that parliament would summon the minister of telecommunications for questioning if the ministry did not lift the Gmail ban, which was imposed last week in respond to clips on Google-owned YouTube of a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad that set off deadly protests across the Islamic world.
Even many newspapers close to the government complained about the email disruptions. On Saturday, the Asr-e Ertebat weekly reported that Iranians had paid a total of $4.5 million to purchase proxy services to reach blocked sites, including Facebook and YouTube, over the past month.
Iranian authorities — perhaps recognizing the risks at hand — decided against taking a symbolic twin shot at Google and cut access to the Web browser in a country with 32 million Internet users among a population of 75 million, according to official statistics.
That would rank online Iran among the world’s top 20 in terms of sheer numbers of users, and equivalent to some European countries in per capita Web use at more than 40 percent, according to the private monitoring group Internet World Stats. The World Bank, however, puts Iran’s Internet link rate at just 21 percent last year.
The U.S. is among the world’s highest at more than 75 percent.
Iran’s deputy telecoms minister, Ali Hakim Javadi, told reporters that Iranian authorities were considering lifting the Gmail ban. But he also used the opportunity to again promise development of Iran’s domestic alternatives: the Fakhr (“Pride”) search engine and the Fajr (“Dawn”) email, Aftab-e Yazd reported.
When reporters noted the quality of Gmail services, Javadi quipped: “If there is Mercedes Benz on the street, that doesn’t mean everyone drives a Mercedes.”
Iran’s clerical establishment has long signaled its intent to get citizens off of the international Internet — which they say promotes Western values — and onto a “national” and “clean” domestic network. Earlier this year, Iran’s police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, called Google an “instrument of espionage” rather than a search engine.
But it is unclear whether Iran has the technical capacity to follow through on its ambitious plans, or is willing to risk the economic damage and the social shock waves.
The Internet has steadily become part of Iran’s fabric since the first Farsi-language sites developed a decade ago by Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan, who is considered one of the founders of Iran’s social media community. Derakshan, however, was detained in 2008 and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison two years later as the battles heated up between liberals seeking open access to the Web and authorities trying to erect their own version of China’s “Great Firewall,” the name given to Beijing’s extensive filtering and censorship of the Internet.
Sites such as Twitter and Facebook were pillars of the street revolts after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The powerful Revolutionary Guard responded by recruiting and training its own cyber force to patrol the Web and, later, try to defend against virus attacks on nuclear and other sites that Iran has blamed on the West and its allies.
Some Web security experts also have raised the possibility of Iranian hackers being behind some recent high-profile computer attacks, such as disruptions at Saudi Arabia’s state oil giant Saudi Aramco and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas earlier this month. Iran has denied any links.
In a video message for Iranian new year in March, President Barack Obama denounced what he called the “electronic curtain” that keeps ordinary Iranians from reaching out to Americans and the West.
A few weeks later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the creation of an Internet oversight agency that included top military, security and political figures in the country’s boldest attempt yet to control the Internet. The panel is headed by Ahmadinejad and includes powerful figures in the security establishment such as the intelligence chief and the commander of the Revolutionary Guard.
It’s not Iran’s first attempt to hold off what hardliners call a Western “cultural invasion.” The so-called Barbie wars have gone on for more than a decade with periodic raids to confiscate the iconic American dolls from toy stores. Iran also introduced its own dolls — twins Dara and Sara — designed to promote traditional values with modest clothing and pro-family values, but it hasn’t significantly dented the demand for Barbie dolls.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.