Iran swipe at Web in attempt to block Gmail brings angry reply

By Nasser Karimi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 12:40 p.m. MDT

In this Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 file photo, Iranian women use computers at an Internet cafe in central Tehran. Iran’s cyber monitors often tout their efforts to fight the West’s 'soft war' of influence through the web, but trying to ban Google’s popular Gmail may have gone too far with complaints coming even from email-starved parliament members.

Vahid Salemi, File, Associated Press

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 over 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.

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