Q + A-How can Iran block Google?

BOSTON/SAN FRANCISCO Thu Feb 11, 2010 9:12pm EST

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BOSTON/SAN FRANCISCO Feb 11 (Reuters) - Iran's government has stepped up efforts to censor the Internet, blocking access to popular sites, according to the U.S. State Department.

Google Inc (GOOG.O) has identified itself as one of the companies whose site has been blocked. The company has also faced off with China recently over Web censorship.

Q. How could Iran block access to specific websites?

A. All Internet traffic in Iran, and many other countries including China, is inspected by government-controlled computers programmed that filter content.

Officials can easily program those filters so that computers in those countries cannot access certain Web pages, such as Google.com, or use specific programs, such as eBay Inc's (EBAY.O) Skype, Twitter, or Activision Blizzard Inc's (ATVI.O) World of Warcraft online video game.

Countries also often choose to block entire websites because that is easier than trying to pinpoint objectionable content.

An example is China's Web filters, which block sites deemed illegal or politically offensive in that country. Google censors its search results so it does not run afoul of those laws.

Q. Why is Iran blocking Google's Web email -- Gmail -- now?

No one knows for sure, but Danny O'Brien, an international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that after Google said its popular Web email service had been attacked by Chinese hackers, the company began encrypting, or protecting, all of its email messages and chats. This makes monitoring more difficult.

Q. Do the United States and European governments filter Web pages for people in their countries?

A. About a third of the world's citizens use the Internet through filters imposed by their local governments, including many schools and libraries in the United States, according to Susan Crawford, a professor of law at the University of Michigan.

But the scale and type of blocking software is the key, because there are effectively two types of filters: software on a person's computer and filters imposed on a network.

Filtering software is often installed by parents to keep their kids from stumbling across objectionable websites, and many companies throughout the world filter their connections in order to keep employees on task.

Q. Is it possible to get around those filters?

A. Yes. There are several ways around the filters, some of which require the user to have some technical knowledge.

One of the easiest to use is a program for personal computers called Tor (www.torproject.org). This program encrypts Internet traffic, effectively hiding it from filtering programs.

Not all of these programs work all the time, and they cannot circumvent all filtering techniques.

(Reporting by Ian Sherr and Jim Finkle; Editing by Richard Chang)

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