Canadian app in the fight for internet freedom in Iran

Canadian company Psiphon became hugely popular in Iran after the government blocked access to Instagram and the messaging app Telegram.
University students attend a protest inside Tehran University while anti-riot Iranian police prevent them from joining other protesters. As protests over Iran's faltering economy rapidly spread across the country, a channel on a mobile messaging app run by an exiled journalist helped fan the passions of some of those who took to the street. The Telegram app shut down a channel run by Roohallah Zam after Iranian authorities complained that it was inciting violence. (The Associated Press)

On New Year's eve, in the midst of protests across the country, the government of Iran blocked access to two of the countries most popular apps: Instagram, and the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The action was intended to keep the protesters from talking to each other and from getting news from outside the country. Iranians were quickly able to find a workaround though, and by the time Telegram was unblocked, approximately 15 million Iranians were using the Canadian app Psiphon.

The mobile messaging service Telegram, created by the exiled founder of Russia's most popular social network site, has caught on in many corners of the globe as an ultra-secure way to quickly upload and share videos, texts and voice messages. (REUTERS)

Psiphon allows users to connect to the internet through a series of proxy servers, and is able to circumvent some of the types of blocking or filtering a government could use to try to censor content online. Psiphon was developed at The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, but is now an independent company.

Mike Hull is a co-founder and the president of Psiphon. He says that it was always the mission of the company to provide their users with access to information, and that means knowing that there will be "adversary" regimes that want to limit what a group of people are able to see. "We always designed the system around the notion that there would be hundreds of thousands or millions of people using the software, and therefore, it would be clear that this is a decision by the population. That they simply want to access some information."

That intent formed a lot of the design decision that went into creating the app. Since it was intended to be used by as wide an audience as possible, they wanted to make it as simple to use as they could. So the interface for the app is essentially just an on/off button. And since they wanted to provide as full access to the internet as possible, they decided not to include unnecessary anonymity functions which may make access more difficult.

I think we showed that there's no point in trying to block the internet- Mike Hull

Since the app was developed outside of the commercial tech world, they were able to work on aspects of the technology they might not have been able to do at a for-profit company. "Because it's a research lab you can kind of dig a little deeper," Mike said, "whereas in most commercial things you might cut some corners here or there because all that's going to take too long, or don't want to try to learn all that, or we don't understand it, or whatever it is. You kind of build from the bottom up."

An Iranian man shows Telegram app messages on his mobile phone in Tehran, Iran. (The Associated Press/Vahid Salemi)

On January 13th the Iranian government lifted its ban on Telegram, though when this story was published Facebook and Twitter were still blocked in the country. "I think we showed that there's no point in trying to block the internet," Mike said. "But they're very determined there."