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Iran Removes Gmail Block

Gmail users in Iran Monday regained access to their accounts via HTTPS for the first time since the Iranian government began blocking Gmail on September 24.

While regular HTTP access to Gmail had remained unblocked, according to news reports, the Iranian government blocked encrypted access to Gmail via HTTPS, later admitting that it was an inadvertent side effect of censoring access to YouTube.

"Unfortunately, we do not yet have enough technical knowhow to differentiate between these two services. We wanted to block YouTube and Gmail was also blocked, which was involuntary," Mohammad Reza Miri, a member of the Iranian telecommunications ministry committee in charge of censoring the country's Internet, told Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency, reported AFP.

"We absolutely do not want YouTube to be accessible," he said. "That is why the telecommunications ministry is seeking a solution to fix the problem to block YouTube under the HTTPS protocol while leaving Gmail accessible. That will soon happen."

[ Is there an answer to international issues involving the Internet? Read The Case For A Cyber Arms Treaty. ]

Iran first began blocking YouTube in June 2009, after protestors used the site to disseminate videos that disputed the validity of the reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the Gmail block drew criticism from Hossein Entezami, who represents the country's newspaper owners as a member of Iran's press monitoring commission. "You can't just close a search engine and a form of communication for the people," he said last week, reported Mehr.

Interestingly, the Gmail block may have been reversed after it hit too close to home for the country's censors. "Some problems have emerged through the blocking of Gmail," Hussein Garrousi, a member of an Iranian parliamentary committee, told the reformist newspaper Aftab-e Yazd Sunday. According to some experts, what he meant was that some government officials had been unhappy over their sudden inability to access their Gmail accounts via HTTPS.

Despite the unblocking of encrypted Gmail, Iranian officials Sunday held a press conference announcing that they planned to offer alternatives to Google search and Gmail, to be respectively dubbed the Fakhr ("Pride") search engine and Fajr ("Dawn") webmail service, according to news reports.

When reporters questioned whether Iran could build services that rivaled Google's, the country's deputy telecoms minister, Ali Hakim Javadi, shot back: "If there is Mercedes Benz on the street, that doesn't mean everyone drives a Mercedes," reported reported Associated Press.

Iranian officials last week also announced that the government is developing its own Internet, which it plans to roll out by March 2013. While some news reports suggest that the Iranian Internet would be created for government agencies, to help block online attacks such as Flame and Stuxnet, other news reports have said that the Iranian Internet would be made available to anyone inside the country, and curated to remain free of any content that's deemed to be anti-Islamic.

But how many of Iran's Internet users woukd buy in to an Iran-only Internet? According to weekly IT magazine Asr-e Ertebat, just in the past month Iranians have collectively spent $4.5 million to subscribe to proxy services, to help them gain access to such restricted sites as both Facebook and YouTube.