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January 18, 2011

Google Goes Back To Iran

by Doug Bernard

Working with the US government, the computer giant Google has announced it will again begin distributing its products in Iran. Will this make the web safer for Iranian web users?

In the wake of Iran's controversial 2009 presidential elections, millions of Iranians took to the web to trade information, organize, and communicate within their nation and with the rest of the world.  Until, that is, Tehran decided to tighten the Internet's spigot and began a serious campaign to restrict web and mobile usage.

Iran still bans many foreign-based websites, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.  And US law prohibits the export of most software-based products to Iran.  However this week, following lengthy and complex negotiations, Google announced its products will again be available to Iranian web users.

Scott Rubin is Google's director of public policy and communications strategy.

"The citizens of Iran will be able to download three Google products: Google Chrome, which is our browser, Picasa, which is our photo-sharing software, and Google Earth, which provides users a 3-D way to scan and world, and users can add their own layers to earth to create their own version about what they want to share with people about the world where they live."

The trade and export sanctions against Iran date back as far as the 1980's, but companies such as Google can apply for narrow trade licenses to the US State Department.  Google still has to abide by the overall sanctions - it can't offer more products than specifically detailed yet - and per US law, these new Google downloads will block all IP addresses associated with the Iranian government.

However, Rubin says these three products could greatly enhance how Iranians share information with each other and the rest of the world online.

"There are millions and millions of people (online in Iran)," says Rubin, "and one of our core missions at Google is to provide access to information around the world.  For all this time, this particular way to share information has not been available to the people of Iran."

The three Google downloads - all free - will allow Iranian users to scan and share photos, to document the physical world around them adding any text or information overlays they wish with Google Earth, and surf the net with Chrome, which Rubin describes as a very secure browswer.

"If you think about what happened after the elections in Iran in 2009 when foreign journalists were expelled or their licenses were revoked to practice journalism," notes Rubin, "the people of Iran used tools like YouTube and Twitter to share what was happening.  This is just one more step to opening up the world, even in countries where information is restricted."

Interestingly, Google's trade license would have permitted the distribution of Google Chat, but company officials had too many concerns that security and privacy of users could too easily be breached by Iranian web snooping.  "It's a balancing act between providing information but doing it in a way that doesn't compromise people's safety," says Rubin.

The Google downloads are all free and available to users in Iran at www.google.com

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