In the days of the Cold War, the free flow of information into the Warsaw Pact countries was blocked by a literal "iron curtain" of steel fences and mines. Now, the control of electrons -- not border crossings -- has become crucial to keeping your populace in the dark, a lesson the repressive regime of Iran, long fearful of the potential of the Internet, appears to have learned well. Still, all is not yet lost; as the Iranian regime's control over electronic media grows ever tighter, the United States is doing everything it can to ensure Iranians retain access to an open web.
Unfortunately for the citizens of Iran, September 23 marked yet another day on which the country's Internet freedom suffered a major blow. An Iranian government minister announced that Google's search engine and email service have now been blocked, a move that suggests Tehran's plans to completely control external Internet access for Iranian citizens are gaining momentum.
Iran announced earlier in the year that it considered Google a tool of Western espionage and that it was developing a domestic alternative dubbed "Yahaq," or "Oh Lord" in Farsi. Such a tool is likely only to bring up search results palatable to the regime. The announcement that Google was now cut off did not say that Yahaq was now active (an intentional omission?), but since the earlier regime announcement specifically said Yahaq was being developed as an alternative to Google, it is reasonable to infer that Iran's regime has or soon will have Yahaq up and running.
This blow to Iran's Internet freedom is only the latest in a series of major attacks on Internet freedom that began in 2009. After Iran's 2009 presidential elections, which many Iranians considered rigged, Tehran turned bandwidth down to a dribbling flow. This wickedly simple tactic made it almost impossible for average citizens to share amateur video of the regime's brutal tactics in suppressing post-election demonstrations. Later in the year, Iran announced the creation of a "cyber-police," banning thousands of websites and any content deemed "insulting."
Iran's suppressive efforts have only accelerated since. In summer 2011, Iran announced plans to build an internal Internet, completely isolated from the outside world, spinning the move as an effort to build "a genuinely halal [lawful] network, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level." The government proclaimed that 60 percent of Iranian Internet users were already on the isolated system and that it intended the rest to be on the system within two years. The regime's next major restriction came in December 2011: the regime started blocking reception of Persian-language satellite TV programming originating from the United States and Arab neighbors, such as Qatar, but it continued to broadcast its own state-supported propaganda "news" programming abroad -- a move that international news organizations condemned as blatantly hypocritical. Iran also initiated "denial of service" attacks against Voice of America's Persian language service, Radio Farda, to shut down its website and jam phone lines during call-in shows.