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Iran has restricted access to Google’s email service, Gmail, and search engine. A firewall already exists preventing Iranians from freely accessing many Western websites.

This latest move coincides with protests throughout the Muslim world against an anti-Islamic film posted on Google’s video-sharing site YouTube.

A government deputy minister announced the upcoming ban, on Sunday on state television. “Google and Gmail will be filtered nationwide, and will remain filtered until further notice,” said an adviser to Iran’s public prosecutor’s office Abdul Samad Khoramabadi. This announcement was also sent out to mobile phones as a text message.

The unsecured version of the search engine, which is much easier to eavesdrop on, remains accessible. The BBC Persian service says: “Google search website is accessible, but is not functioning properly. Google services which need a secure SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] connection are out of reach in Iran. Any attempt to get access to those services leads the user to a never-ending waiting phase, where nothing comes up.”

Users can only access Gmail accounts by using virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow web surfing behind heavily encrypted firewalls. Many Iranians already use VPNs to bypass the government’s restrictions on other blocked Western websites. “This is just a move by the Iranian government towards a so-called nationwide intranet, to control all the traffic from the outside, and authorities are saying they will implement it in about three years. But every Iranian school child knows how to bypass restrictions by using VPNs, it’s very common in Iran.”

This is not the first time Iranian authorities have cut access to Google services.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decided to create a special council to protect Iran from “harm” seeing both Google Search and Gmail restricted in February, ahead of parliamentary elections in March.

Mr Mehr, an Iranian telecommunications consultant living in Germany, said that he did not think the services were going to stay restricted for long. “This is just a propaganda tool to demonstrate that Iran is doing something against the US, but it is unlikely to last longer than a few days. The current trouble with the anti-Islamic film is helping the government with this propaganda. The state is saying that the people are asking to block these services because of the film, but there haven’t been such protests as in Pakistan and elsewhere, only small organised protests, so my personal feeling is that it has nothing to do with the film. Especially keeping in mind that YouTube has been blocked for some time already.”

Google’s YouTube site has been censored since mid-2009, following protests and allegations of vote fraud after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The websites of several Western media organisations such as the Guardian, BBC and CNN are also blocked in the country, and a number of other web services, including Facebook and Twitter, are often censored.

In March, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered officials to set up a body tasked with defining policy and co-ordinating decisions regarding the internet, called the Supreme Council of Virtual Space.

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