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Iranian Activists Welcome Access To Google Software, Call For More

The Persian Gulf as seen through Google Earth
The Persian Gulf as seen through Google Earth
Amid the unrest that followed Iran's 2009 disputed presidential vote, Amir Hossein Etemadi depended on Google's Chrome browser to surf the net, update his opposition website, and spread the latest news from the streets.

At the time, Chrome was blocked in Iran by Google in keeping with U.S. sanctions, but Etemadi -- editor of the "Bamdadkhabar" website that covers the country's beleaguered student movement -- and other Internet-savvy Iranians knew how to access it through antifiltering tools.

In March 2010, the Obama administration did an about-face, easing restrictions on online services to Iran and promoting Internet freedom around the world as a democracy tool. This month, Google followed up by announcing that it would make Chrome and two other products -- Google Earth, which allows users to explore global maps, and the photo sharing service Picasa -- available for download in Iran.

Now, the thinking goes, Etemadi and others in Iran will gain free access to the three Google products, while IP addresses associated with the Iranian government will not be allowed to download the software, in compliance with U.S. export laws.

Etemadi and other activists interviewed by RFE/RL welcome the change as a positive first step, but one that needs to be advanced further by the Google and others.

"Those who are professional Internet users know how to get by sanctions and restrictions [to access those products]. Therefore [Google's announcement] has more of a symbolic significance,” he said. “[Still] I hope this is a new beginning that would lead other companies to follow suit and remove their restrictions against Iranian users."

Sanctions Hurt Citizens

Vahid Online, a well-known cyberactivist and blogger who was among the first to break the "good news" to Iranians, says the decision sends a message to those citizens who felt they had fallen victim to sanctions intended for their government.

"[The unavailability of Google products in Iran] has been very upsetting for Iranians,” Vahid Online said. "Because the Internet is already filtered [by the Iranian government] and Google added its own restrictions, people had been complaining that they had to suffer from both sides."

The activist says blocking access to online products in Iran mirrored the policies of the Iranian government, which heavily censors the Internet.

"Many are laughing and saying now that Google has removed its restrictions, the Islamic establishment is going to [block] the products," Vahid Online said.

But another opposition blogger, Sokhansanj, wrote that Google's move should be considered a "technological victory for the Green Movement."

The importance of Google's move, the blogger continued, is that Google's products are offered "only for the people of Iran. The government is still being sanctioned."

Potential For Misuse

Etemadi, who fled Iran about four months ago to escape arrest over his activities, nevertheless remains concerned that the Iranian establishment might finds ways to use the newly available products to their own advantage.

In the past, the government has used so-called "double-edged " online technologies to intercept email communications among activists, providing an avenue for them to single them out and to apply pressure.

Etemadi believes the government has used some of the same tools Google has made available to Iranians to gain easier access to information. He singles out Google Earth as being potentially more useful to the regime because, "you need a fast Internet connection, and [the] Iranian government bodies have fast Internet" compared to the painfully slow access available to civilians.

He does, however, cite a case in which Google Earth images aided the opposition movement's cause.

"Google Earth was useful for the protest movement once after the state organized a demonstration for the anniversary of the [1979 ] revolution when the government claimed its supporters participated massively and filled the street around Azadi Square,” he said. “Google Earth pictures [later] showed that the establishment's claim was exaggerated."

The Internet in general has been an empowering tool for opposition activists, who managed to bring attention to the postelection state crackdown and human rights abuses through video-sharing sites such as YouTube, which has been blocked by Iranian authorities. Many activists continue to use blogs, websites, and social media to spread news about the opposition movement, including new arrests and the situation of political prisoners.

Google has said it hopes its products will make communication easier in the Islamic republic.

'More Power'

"We believe that more available products mean more choice, more freedom, and ultimately more power for individuals in Iran and across the globe," Google Export Compliance Programs Manager Neil Martin wrote on the company's official blog on January 18.

One opposition activist in northern Iran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that Internet products could facilitate easier access to tens of thousands of websites that the government has filtered in its drive to block the flow of information.

"I have been using Chrome and Google Earth. Although Google Earth is difficult to use because of the slow Internet, now Chrome will be easier to download," the activist said. "At the end of the day these are only tools [we have] and we still face state filtering. For a Green future (eds. green is the color of Iran's opposition movement) we need a strong will."

Mahmood Enayat, the director of the Iran Media Program at the University of Pennsylvania, estimates that from 40 to 50 percent of Iranian Internet users use Google products.

"With popularity comes responsibility," he adds:

"We welcome this decision, we have been waiting for this for a long time," Enayat says. "It should have happened much earlier and it should also happen for all the online public services they're offering."

He believes Google should not only lift restrictions on all its products for Iranians but it should also design products in a way that make them easy to access inside Iran.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.