The move comes one month after the United States announced plans to launch new services facilitating internet access and mobile phone communications in countries with tight controls on freedom of speech, a decision that infuriated Tehran’s regime and prompted harsh reactions from several Iranian officials.
The upgrade had at first appeared as a relaxation of the censorship machine. Iran’s online community said on Monday that filtering was temporarily lifted for the entire country, giving users access to banned websites such as Twitter and Facebook. But hopes for an end to censorship were dashed when news agencies reported later in the day that the respite was due to the process of making the upgrade.
Despite the filtering, many Iranians access blocked addresses with help from proxy websites or virtual private network (VPN) services. The upgrade is aimed at stopping users bypassing censorship.
More than 5 million websites are filtered in Iran. Media organisations including the Guardian, BBC and CNN are blocked, though access to the New York Times website is allowed. On Google, the Farsi equivalents for words such as “condom”, “sex”, “lesbian” and “anti-filtering” are filtered out.
Iran is believed to be worried about the influence of the internet and especially social networking websites as pro-democracy activists across the Middle East use them to promote and publicise their movements.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying: “The ministry of communications and information technology is strengthening the filtering system and recent disruptions were the result of this upgrade.”
At the same time, Nasimonline.ir, an agency that publishes short Twitter-style bursts of news, said it had received information that “a new filtering system that targets Google and Yahoo search engines” had been installed and tested on Monday.
“I think that the new upgrade in the filtering system is a signal from Iran that the regime is prepared to stop any attempt by the US to challenge the country’s online censorship,” said an Iranian who spoke to the Guardian by phone from Tehran on condition of anonymity.