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Will Iran’s Persian YouTube inspire a cultural thaw or create a safe place for censors?

Seemingly determined to go its own way when it comes to matters of the Internet, Iran has just launched its own YouTube-like video sharing site, offering Iranian web users government-approved video content.

Although the move will for many conjure up the absurd image of regulators sitting through hours of video footage showing Iranian cats playing pianos, riding bikes or juggling balls, the real aim – as far as many political activists in the country are concerned – will be to filter out content considered anti-government. The authorities, on the other hand, will claim it’ll help to prevent anti-Islamic content from reaching web users in the country, such as the recent Innocence of Muslims video that appeared on YouTube and was blamed for sparking a number of heated protests in the Muslim world.

The new video-sharing site, called Mehr (meaning ‘affection’ in Farsi), says on its About Us page that it hopes to appeal to Persian-speaking users and promote Iranian culture.

“From now on, people can upload their short films on the website and access [Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting] produced material,” IRIB deputy chief Lotfollah Siahkali told the AFP.

The Iranian authorities began blocking YouTube in 2009 and in September this year also blocked access to Google’s search engine, as well as Gmail. “Google and Gmail will be filtered throughout the country until further notice,” an official said at the time.

The actions are reportedly part of a move to create a nationally-run Internet, creating what you might call an Iran Wide Web rather than a World Wide Web.

But as the AFP points out in its report, many web users in the country have found ways to connect to blocked sites using, for example, VPN (virtual private network) software. With around half of its 75-million population said to have web access, the Iranian authorities will have its work cut out trying to create a truly walled-off national Internet.