(Updates with fresh quotes throughout, changes dateline)
* Services hit included email, social networking
* Some see effort to muzzle opposition ahead of election
* Experts say Iranian government testing new network
By Marcus George
DUBAI, Feb 14 Millions of Iranians have
suffered serious disruption recently in accessing email and
Internet social networking sites, raising concerns authorities
are stepping up censorship of opposition supporters ahead of
parliamentary elections next month.
Iranians have grappled with increased obstacles to using the
Internet since opposition supporters used social networking
sites to organise widespread protests after the disputed 2009
re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The country is preparing to hold parliamentary elections on
March 2, the first time Iranians will go to the polls since
President Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election. The government
denied any fraud in the vote, which ignited street protests that
were crushed violently by security services after eight months.
The new Internet blockade affected the most common form of
secure connections from Friday, according to outside experts and
Iranian bloggers. Traffic was said to have returned to normal on
Monday. "I haven't been able to open pages for days but now it's
working again, although slowly," said Hamid Reza, a 20-year-old
student in Tehran, who was reluctant to give his surname.
The cut-off appeared to target all encrypted international
websites outside Iran that depend on the Secure Sockets Layer
protocol, which display addresses beginning with https,
according to Earl Zmijewski of Renesys, a U.S. company that
tracks Internet traffic worldwide.
Google, which uses SSL for its Gmail service, reported that
traffic from Iran to its email system fell precipitously.
Iran's Ministry of Communications and Technology denied
knowing of the disruption, saying the origin was elsewhere.
"The government is testing different tools," said Hamed
Behravan, who reports on Iranian technology issues for the U.S.
government-funded Voice of America. "They might have wanted to
see the public reaction."
NATIONAL INTERNET SYSTEM?
Many Iranians are concerned the government may be preparing
to unveil its much documented national internet system,
effectively giving the authorities total control over what
content Iranian users will be able to access.
The authorities say it is designed to speed up the system
and filter out sites that are regarded as "unclean".
"The Internet is an uninvited guest which has entered our
country," said Mohammad Reza Aghamiri, a member of the Iranian
government's Internet filtering committee, "and because of its
numerous problems, severe supervision is required."
He told the daily Arman that Internet search engines like
Google were a threat to the country.
"We have never considered Google as appropriate to serve
Iranian users, because Google is at the service of the CIA," he
said. "It has adopted a vivid hostile stance against us."ble.
Opposition supporters believe Iranian authorities were
targeting their attempts to hold a rally calling on the
government to release leaders of the opposition Green movement,
Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.
The two leaders were placed under house arrest on Feb. 14
last year after they urged their supporters to join a rally in
support of uprisings across the Arab world.
Iranian authorities have vowed to quell any public protest
against the protracted house arrest of Mousavi and Karoubi.
"It could just be a coincidence but my guess is that the
system was looking to block communication between opposition
supporters," said an Iranian analyst who did not want to be
The disruption has riled some Iranian members of parliament
and they have vowed to look for those responsible.
An MP, Ahmad Tavakoli, told the semi-official Mehr News
Agency that the issue was creating widespread discontent that
could "cost the establishment dearly".
"This filtering leads people to break the law, and using
proxies makes the blocking of sites and signals ineffective,
because using proxies becomes widespread," he said.
Authoritarian Arab governments under popular pressure have
sought to shut down Internet service to make it harder for
opponents to mobilise protests, but with little success.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing
by Mark Heinrich)