Iranian move to filter Gmail reflects attacks on Google and freedom of speech internationally

Could the filtering of Gmail in Iran this week mean that phase two of the Islamic Republic’s “national information network” (NIN) project is on the way?

Last week the Iranian government implemented phase one of its NIN project, which disconnected thousands of government computers from the World Wide Web and instead connected them to Iran’s newly built national intranet.

Then earlier this week on Monday 24 September Kamyar Saghafi, a member of Iran’s Cyberspace Supreme Council, declared that due to popular demand and outrage against the amateur film “Innocence of Muslims”, which had been uploaded to Google subsidiary YouTube, certain key Google services would be filtered:

“Cutting off some of Google’s services in Iran is without a doubt a response to people’s request and has happened according to legal provisions…Users must themselves avoid these services and should not even check these websites to see if they have been cut or not.”

This is not the first time a Google service has been filtered. In fact YouTube has been inaccessible for most Iranian through conventional means for a number of years now.

Later in the week on Tuesday Iranian information minister Reza Taghipour clarified government comments by saying that Google’s email service, Gmail, had been filtered in Iran but that other Google services like its popular search engine would remain available. When asked by reporters about where the decision for filtering Gmail had come from Taghipour stated that “The courts have issued an order and if someday this changes the filters will be removed.” When pressed by the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reporter about which court the filtering order had come from Taghipour simply answered “Ask the judiciary.”

Editor’s note: While the Iranian government has used the outrage generated by “Innocence of Muslims” to filter Gmail, its true intentions may be elsewhere. The national information network, Iran’s intranet project, is supposed to be self-sufficient and include its own search engine and email services. In cutting Gmail, the regime may be looking to begin the process of pushing Iranians, beginning with government employees, over to its own new email services. Given the popularity of Google services like Gmail this may be difficult and could cause communication problems for both government employees and the population at large, at least early on.

Iran’s move to filter Gmail comes during a week during which Google, and international freedom of speech more broadly, have come under attack, in part as a result of the outrage in parts of the Muslim world caused by “Innocence of Muslims”.

During this week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York a number of leaders from the Islamic world called for the creation of international “anti-blasphemy” laws, which would presumably include restrictions on some Google services. This demand was strongly rejected by United States president Barack Obama, who joked that though the right to free speech means that people speak out against him everyday he “will always defend their right to do so,” and that repression of free speech “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”

Also this week Google Brazil’s president Fabio Jose Silva Coelho was arrested in the south-west Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul after he was accused of not removing an allegedly slanderous YouTube video targeting a local mayoral candidate.