Iran Takes Aim at Google, Wikipedia in Latest Internet Censorship Effort
Google and Wikipedia appear to be the latest victims of Iran’s online censorship efforts, just two days after the Iranian government repeated — once again — that it’s planning to loosen its grip on the Internet.
Iran has reportedly blocked access to another Google service, the hosting platform Google Sites, and censored at least two sensitive Wikipedia pages in Farsi in the last couple of days. It’s unclear at this point if these blocks are government mandated, but if they are, activists think they would expose the Iranian government’s double-sided stance on Internet freedom.
Ever since President Hassan Rouhani was elected last year, his government has pledged to open up to the Internet, while, at the same time, it has steadily censored various services and websites, and even jailed 16 tech bloggers. Twitter and Facebook also still remain blocked in Iran, even though Rouhani, as well as other members of the government, routinely use them.
On Wednesday, Iran announced that it was planning to loosen Internet censorship by using so-called “smart filters,” which would allow the government to block only specific “depraved and immoral” websites and leave others untouched, according to Communications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi.
Iran has a long history of blocking Wikipedia sites, as previous research has shown, but these latest blocks, activists warn, seem to indicate that the future is more of the same, rather than more freedom.
“The fact that pages on Wikipedia are now being censored is a troubling harbinger of a tighter hold on access to information, as opposed to the notion that these new technologies will allow for ‘looser censorship,'” Mahsa Alimardani, an Iranian Internet researcher based in Toronto, told Mashable.
On Friday, Nariman Gharib, an Iranian researcher based in London reported that the Wikipedia pages about the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the one about the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran were inaccessible within Iran.
— Nariman Gharib (@ListenToUs) May 16, 2014
— Nariman Gharib (@ListenToUs) May 16, 2014
— Alireza Shirazi (@alirezashirazi) May 15, 2014
“Brothers have blocked the Google webhosting website,” he tweeted, according to translations by Alimardani and Gharib. (“Brothers” is how Iranians refer to government hardliners.)
Both Gharib and Collin Anderson, a Washington-based independent technology researcher who focuses on Iran, later confirmed that Google Sites is indeed unreachable within Iran, based on a test they did with separate computers they have within the country. Another Iranian contacted by Mashable, however, said he could reach Google Sites. Perhaps the block is effective only for certain Internet Service Providers.
Google itself confirmed the blocking on Friday afternoon, after this story was published, updating its real-time traffic data on Iran.
This is not the first time Iran has targeted Google. YouTube has been blocked in the country since June 13, 2009. And over the years, Gmail has been blocked for short periods of time as well, according to Google.
It’s unclear why Google Sites was the target this time. Anderson speculates that maybe it’s because the service was being used to host links to Virtual Private Network (VPN) software, which allows users to circumvent Internet censorship, or it might just be a mistake. In late December last year, Iran blocked Instagram, reportedly by mistake.
It could also just be a test, Alimardani said.
“Looks like an effort to test to see if the blocking of subdomains is possible — since amongst Iranians this Google site is largely insignificant,” she said in an online chat. “If this is indeed part of the efforts to implement smart filtering, this news is not troubling, it just looks like an [information and communications technology] experiment.”
Gharib, however, thinks there might be some reason for concern.
“It’s very sad when we see that Iranian authorities block Google services,” he told Mashable. “And I’m personally very worried about them putting their hands near Google and Gmail.”
Google declined to comment for this story, while Wikipedia sent the following statement.
“Wikipedia exists to ensure all knowledge is available for everyone, especially those in places where information is limited or controlled. We resist censorship in all its forms.”
This story has been updated to add Google’s confirmation of the block, which came only after the publication of this story.