Iran attempt to block Gmail spurs backlash

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TEHRAN -- Iran's cyber monitors often tout their fight against the West's "soft war" of influence through the Web, but trying to block Google's popular Gmail appeared to be a swipe too far.

Complaints piled up, even from email-starved parliament members, and forced authorities yesterday to double down on their promises to create a parallel Web universe with Tehran as its center.

The strong backlash and the unspecific pledges for an Iran-centric Internet alternative to the Silicon Valley powers and others highlight the two sides of the Islamic Republic's ongoing battles with the Web. It's spurred another technological mobilization that fits neatly into Iran's self-crafted image as the Muslim world's showcase for science, including sending satellites into orbit, claiming advances in cloning and stem cell research and facing down the West over its nuclear program.

But there also are the hard realities of trying to reinvent the Web. Iran's highly educated and widely tech-savvy population is unlikely to warm quickly to potential clunky homegrown browsers or email services. And then there's the potential political and economic fallout of trying to close the tap on familiar sites such as Gmail.

"Some problems have emerged through the blocking of Gmail," Hussein Garrousi, a member of a parliamentary committee on industry, was quoted yesterday by the independent Aftab-e Yazd daily. What he apparently meant was that many lawmakers were angry and missing their emails.

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He said parliament would summon the minister of telecommunications for questioning if the ministry did not lift the Gmail ban, which was imposed last week in respond to clips on Google-owned YouTube of a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad that set off deadly protests across the Islamic world.

Even many newspapers close to the government complained over the email disruptions. On Saturday, the Asr-e Ertebat weekly reported that Iranians had paid a total of $4.5 million to purchase proxy services to reach blocked sites, including Facebook and YouTube, over the past month.

Iranian authorities -- perhaps recognizing the risks at hand -- decided against taking a symbolic twin shot at Google in a country with 32 million Internet users among a population of 75 million, according to official statistics.

That would rank online Iran among the world's top 20 in terms of sheer numbers of users, and equivalent to some European countries in per capita Web use at more than 40 percent, according to the private monitoring group Internet World Stats. The World Bank, however, puts Iran's Internet link rate at just 21 percent last year.

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