TEHRAN -- Iran has shut off access to Google and Gmail inside the country, a step eyed by Web activists with concern as the nation's leaders seek to wall off a corner of cyberspace separate from the global Internet.
As of Monday, Iranians received an announcement via text message that quoted Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, secretary of an official group that scours the Web for banned content.
"Due to the repeated demands of the people, Google and Gmail will be filtered nationwide," the message said. "They will remain filtered until further notice."
The "demands" appear to be tied to an online video mocking the prophet Muhammad, which Google has restricted in some countries but declined to completely scrub from YouTube.
Google has been targeted in Iran before: The search engine has been denounced by a top police official as an "espionage tool" and excoriated by Iranian officials for not labeling the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as the "Persian Gulf" on Google Maps. Internet access on the whole has been disrupted in Iran in the past, often during times of unrest before or after elections.
Blocking Google at this time has caused particular alarm because the government said it has embarked on launching its own "national Internet," a "pure" system separate from the worldwide Internet, causing activists to worry that the new system will be used to keep Iranians off the global Web.Cutting off Google could push Iranians toward more closely monitored channels to the Web, where dissent can be more easily tracked and purged. So far, however, the "national Internet" project is limited to government offices and has not been rolled out for ordinary Iranians.
Official statements provide signs of why activists are worried. "The Internet must not be given the authority to challenge national and ethical principles," the official Islamic Republic News Agency stated this year.
Iran now censors the Internet, but many Iranians use special technology to dodge the restrictions. Reporters Without Borders found that the Google blockage had worked in some parts of Iran but not others. Several virtual private networks used to sidestep Internet censorship were down, but some Iranian users told The Times they were still able to use Google on Monday afternoon.
Lawmaker Mohammad Soleimani tried to tamp down fears concerning the "national Internet" last week, according to the Iranian Students News Agency, reportedly saying that cutting access to the Internet wasn't even possible and "would amount to imposing sanctions on ourselves."
"However, the filtering will remain in place," he said.
Internet experts in Iran say that, ironically, Gmail is used by all local state-run news agencies and all Iranian universities -- meaning the government hurt itself with the ban.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Google's logo adorns a wall at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. "Due to the repeated demands of the people, Google and Gmail will be filtered nationwide," an Iranian government message that was sent Monday said. "They will remain filtered until further notice." Credit: Kimihiro Hoshino / AFP/Getty Images