Amidst another huge wave of protests marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have announced that they are cutting off access to Google's Gmail and replacing it with a "national" email system.;
If you knew nothing of Iran you might expect this to be a celebratory day inside the country. But the opposition movement is massing to hijack today's celebrations, and there are already reports of unrest in Tehran. The government has mobilized troops across the nation to keep everyone in check, and have reportedly arrested Zahra Eshraqi--granddaughter of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeni--but protestors have still been boldly shouting "Death to the dictator!" This all, of course, stems from the elections there last year which have been widely denounced both inside and outside the country as being corrupt.
All of which explains the announcement yesterday of plans to shutter Gmail--reportedly on a permanent basis--as the latest step in a government crackdown on dissent. Permanently shutting down Google's comms system that would have allowed users to email and chat and organize, and share images with the outer world that the Iranian authorities would prefer not to be shared. Last year Twitter was disabled for a while, as protestors were using the social net's real-time powers to organize their activities and to broadcast the military and police response, and there were even reports that the nation's SMS system was partly deactivated (as well as being spied upon) to prevent use of cell phones as a protest tool. But the government wasn't able to effectively kill-off these avenues of communication, and the world quickly came to see what was going on from an ordinary citizen's viewpoint.
It's probably coincidental that Google Buzz launched when it did, but Buzz would've elevated Google's utility as a comms channel out of government control, and unable to be spied on. Google itself has corroborated the action, noting "sharp drop" in Iranian Gmail traffic, though it hasn't yet gone into details. We have no word yet on whether Facebook and Twitter access is being quashed inside Iran...but it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that's the case.
Gmail will be replaced by a nationally-administrated system, which it is incredibly easy to imagine will be heavily monitored and censored, and which can be switched off at a moment's notice.
You're likely to hear a lot of complaints today from non-Iranian 'net dwellers concerned with Google's increasing power to monitor our actions and penetrate into our online (and offline) life. A headline from Business Insider late yesterday blared the news: "WARNING: Google Buzz Has A Huge Privacy Flaw" And it's an obvious one, the service automatically signs you up with followers culled from your address book thus making some of your contacts public to anyone who looks at your profile. But compared to what will be available in Iran it's a fluffy white bunny of email happiness. Ultimately, it all boils down to ways that Google can keep making money, of course...but still, go Google!