The Toronto Star
When Ali Karimzadeh Bangi came to Canada in 2005 as a landed immigrant, he never expected to become an “accidental” champion of free expression for his former fellow citizens in Iran.
Flash forward eight years and Bangi, now 38, is director of ASL19 — an organization that is part of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“It just happened,” Bangi confesses of the founding of ASL19. “We’re doing it for now. We never set up to do something big.”
His mission is to facilitate Internet access for thousands of Iranians, whose access to many sites is blocked and whose emails and activities are watched by the Iranian government and its Supreme Council of Cyberspace.
Bangi’s underlying belief: “We can watch a lot of things on YouTube. Why can’t they?”
ASL19 provides free circumvention tools and support in Farsi, which allow Iranians access to Canadian servers so they can freely use the Internet. It also provides tools that block a user’s IP address so the Iranian government can’t identify him or her. The group also spends time monitoring the situation in Iran, and media and Internet access.
Between 500,000 to 900,000 people in Iran are believed to be using its circumvention tools, Bangi said.
But providing uncensored Internet access may become increasingly difficult in the run-up to the mid-June Iranian elections. The Iranian government recently managed to block traffic, but the tools are now available again.
Bangi and his team of seven are doing their best to make sure this doesn’t happen again, that the team stays one step ahead of hacking or blocking attempts by the Iranian government.
Bangi believes ASL19’s role has become increasingly important, especially since Iran’s cyberspace council recently created its own intranet system. It not only tightened access to the Internet by blocking certain sites, but enacted legislation that made mentioning the “promotion of boycotting the election” or “insulting content about the election and candidates” on a website, email or blog a crime.
The tools ASL19 offers aren’t the only ones out there, but they have proved useful when others have been shut down or attacked. “About three weeks ago when (Iran) shut down VPN (Virtual Private Networks), our tools became very critical,” said Bangi. “So people can still use our tool to read BBC Farsi, go on Facebook, do things the government didn’t want them to do.”
By having open access to the Internet, Bangi said users in Iran can read blocked websites run by a group of Iranian activists/journalists living in exile, which report on issues and election news that the Iranian government does not want the people to read.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two months. But if they decide to mobilize and communicate with each other, these tools will help them as well. That’s what I refer to as online assembly.”
A former software engineer from the University of Iran, Bangi is doing his PhD at U of T, researching the militarization of cyberspace, cyber attacks, and Internet controls. After coming to Canada, he quickly got a job working for the UN in Azerbaijan and then Syria. He returned to Canada and did a master’s in international relations, examining the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It was after the 2009 Iranian election, when much activity on Facebook during the campaign led to a clampdown on Internet access, that Bangi became involved with Citizen Lab.
And ASL19 was born. The organization has three partners: Citizen Lab; Psiphon Inc., a Toronto-based company and offshoot of Citizen Lab that develops the tools to circumvent Internet censorship; and the Iran Media Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Next up for Bangi and his colleague Mahsa Alimardani, research manager for ASL19, are plans to make their tools available to smart phones in Iran.
There is some danger to what they do and any travel to Iran is out of the question. “In terms of physical security, a lot of us who have used our real names realize we can’t go back to Iran,” said Alimardani.