Iran began blocking access to Gmail on Wednesday – a move intended to stifle the same Internet communications that made the "Twitter Revolution" possible. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Iranian government would soon shut down Gmail in Iran altogether, and replace the popular email platform with a government-run service.
The move comes as anti-government protesters flooded the streets during celebrations for the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic. Last June, social networks such as Twitter and Facebook were used to organize rallies and to keep the outside world abreast of the violence in the streets of Tehran. By pulling the plug on Gmail, the Iran government eliminates one more communication outlet for anti-government forces.
Gmail is the only major online e-mail service that uses HTTPS connections by default, which encrypts the data sent between a user’s computer and Google’s servers. That makes it very difficult for the government to spy on Gmail users e-mailing other Gmail users, though Gmail users e-mailing others could be overheard. Users of other online e-mail services are vulnerable to having the contents of their e-mails scanned by government firewalls.
As of last night, Google said that it had heard early reports that Gmail service was flagging in Iran. "We have heard from users in Iran that they are having trouble accessing Gmail," a Google spokesman told Reuters. "We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic, and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly."
In other words, if there's a problem with Gmail in Iran, it's not an outage on Google's end.
Twitter, on the other hand, appears to be up and running in Iran. This is likely due to the open nature of Twitter, which users can access on a range of mobile devices. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams said he was devoted to finding ways to keep Twitter open.
"We are partially blocked in China and other places and we were in Iran as well,” Williams said. “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about. I am hopeful there are technological ways around these barriers."
Thursday's protests in Iran could be the first big test.
For more from the Horizons blog, follow us on Twitter.