Today the story broke that Iran has banned the use of Gmail and Yahoo, as well as other internet messaging sources. Although not yet officially confirmed by Iran or Google, Google released the following 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. Sadly, sometimes it is not within our control.
Such regulation represents a growing trend by countries to regulate their citizens’ use of technology.
In 2005, the Chinese government made news when it imposed restrictions on the content of blogs, web forums and chat rooms. Other countries, notably Vietnam, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, have followed suit. The trend prompted a group called OpenNet Initiative to chronicle and analyze the methods used by these countries to restrict their citizens’ use of the internet.
Many of these countries impose regulations in order to control the content that their citizens see and write. Iran, for example, is thought to be blocking Gmail in part as a method to prevent groups from organizing and protesting the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. By banning the use of public e-mail services and forcing citizens to use government-run e-mail services, the government can control the content of the e-mails. The same is true for blogs and other public forums which are banned or regulated.
Countries justify the bans by saying they keep out harmful content. In 2005, China defended its Internet censorship stating that “the Internet has profited many people but it also has brought many problems, such as sex, violence and feudal superstitions and other harmful information that has seriously poisoned people’s spirits,” making it necessary in order to protect their citizens. A year later China complained of a double standard, claiming that nations such as the U.S. engage in the same type of censorship. Many question the validity of this comparison, pointing to the varying degrees of regulation.
The effects of these regulation tactics — other than limiting Internet-related free speech — are unclear. It has not limited citizens’ interest in using the Internet, and, as evidences by the riots in Iran today, it has not always prevented anti-government sentiment.