After a few stumbles in the social media world, Google launched Google Plus at the end of last month. But when some users in Iran attempted to access the new site, they were met by a Google error screen informing them that they were blocked from accessing the site because their IP address came from a “forbidden country.”
At the blog of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which first reported the blockage, Ali Tayebi published screen captures from Iranian users who’d attempted to access Google Plus:
It appears Google is taking a cautious approach with Iran because of a U.S. sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic. (At press time, Google had not responded to an inquiry.) If that is the case, such a step almost definitely did not come at the behest of the U.S. government: in March 2010 the Treasury Department issued “general licenses authorizing the exportation of certain personal Internet-based communications services – such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking – to Iran.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Internet freedom a major plank in her foreign policy approach, having delivered two lengthy addresses on the topic, first in January 2010 and again in February 2011 as social media helped to fuel the Arab Spirng protest movements that deposed two North African dictators and put several other Middle East autocracies on the brink of collapse.
In the past, before the Treasury general license, Google and other internet companies faced dilemmas about allowing access to Iranians and permitting software downloads — and most chose to deny services instead of even changing the prospect of censure by the U.S. It even took Google nearly nine months after the issuance of the general license for the California company to make downloads of Google Earth, Chrome, and Picasa available to users in Iran.
No doubt that, if the blockage came because of a fear of sanctions penalties, the breadth and severity of unilateral U.S. sanctions played a role in the decision. Iranians were at the forefront of using social media in protests when many of them tweeted their way through massive demonstration after the disputed June 2009 elections. Activists and others in Iran often prefer Google mail and other services because they are more secure. If Google is blocking access, it is, as NIAC says, “shameful.”