The recent arrest of several bloggers, online journalists, and Internet technicians in Iran has raised fears that the country's old guard is determined to muzzle dissent in cyberspace.
The Internet has become a refuge for liberal journalists since the hard-line judiciary closed scores of reformist publications over the past four years. The Web log, or blog, format - a cross between a diary and public commentary - has allowed dissident writers to reach a mass audience with less of the expense and oversight of print media.
Government efforts to curtail this new forum are seen in Tehran as linked to the ascendancy of hard-liners who wrested control of parliament from reformers earlier this year after elections that many moderates were banned from contesting.
"They [hard-liners] see all these websites, including blogs, as newspapers they haven't been able to crack down on yet," says Hossein Derakhshan, a Canada-based Iranian blogger.
New laws covering "cyber crimes" were announced last week by the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahrudi.
"Anyone who disseminates information aimed at disturbing the public mind through computer systems or telecommunications ... would be punished in accordance with the crime of disseminating lies," he declared.
At the same time, a judiciary spokesman said that people running unauthorized sites would soon be tried on charges including "acting against national security, disturbing the public mind, and insulting sanctities."
The government had originally focused on blocking pornographic sites. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, told a UN digital summit in Geneva last year that his country blocked access only to "pornographic and immoral" sites that were not compatible with Islam. But, he insisted: "We are not censoring criticism. Criticism is OK."
Prominent bloggers include a key Khatami ally and presidential adviser, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who resigned as vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs earlier this month, saying he could not work with the Parliament. His enemies saw him as the voice of Khatami's attempt to introduce greater democracy and freedom. Mr. Abtahi's lively blog covers subjects from soccer to freedom of speech. When two reformist papers were shut in July, he wrote in his blog that the "voice of the majority will not be heard any more."
Four of those detained recently were among dozens of Iranians accused by an ultrahard-line newspaper, Keyhan, of being part of a "dastardly" web of bloggers and journalists that was attempting to undermine the regime. Keyhan, which identified dozens of Iranians working in Iran and abroad, claimed the network was supported by the US and a "few centers in Europe."
Concerned colleagues of those arrested said that many accused of political crimes in recent years were arrested after false allegations against them were published in Keyhan.
Mr. Derakhshan says those arrested were not targeted because they had blogs, but because they were "connected technically or journalistically to reformist websites."
In August, when the Internet-related arrests began, the authorities blocked access to three websites close to Iran's leading reformist party. This prompted a protest by the party's leader, Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother.
One of the sites moved its content onto a blog. Hundreds of bloggers also protested by renaming their sites after pro-reformist papers and sites that have been banned. They have also posted news stories from the banned publications.
Derakhshan says authorities are having trouble filtering sites and suspects they are considering a "national intranet," or service just for Iran, separate from the Web. Derakhshan and others are working on a way to get around it with e-mail subscriptions.
Four years ago, just 250,000 Iranians used the Internet, a figure that has soared to about 4.8 million. Experts believe there are as many as 100,000 weblogs - 10 percent of which are political in nature.
The arrests have been denounced by Iran's pro-reform Press Association. The union met last week to protest and to underscore their concerns that a rising generation of journalists - most of the bloggers are in their 20s - may be at risk.
A foreign envoy in Tehran says: "My Iranian contacts are complaining that the size of the environment for free speech is getting smaller and ... that the electronic environment is now being concentrated on ... but it will be very difficult to stifle it all."