Hossein Derakhshan awaiting sentencing

Hoder, 2005

A member of Hossein “Hoder” Derakhshan’s family has confirmed to me that he is awaiting a sentence in his trial in Tehran, and that the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty.

After initially seeing a report on Kamtarin.com, which I passed along to this family member, that family member dismissed it as “rumor.” However, other messages from a second family member seemed to conclude that this sad news was correct. I forwarded that message to my contact, who said that after getting in touch with his family, confirmed that the sentencing was, in fact, true.

“I did [speak with my family] and it’s confirmed,” the contact writes. “They had told me they want to give him 15 years and we are waiting for the sentence. I had thought this was what the prosecuter has requested. But apparently this is not the case. So, yes, the prosecuter has asked for the death penalty but we’re still waiting for the sentence.”

and adds:

“What I think would be very effective at this point would be to get as many people as possible to write to Larry King and ask him to ask Ahmadinejad about Hossein. It’s a perfect way to put him under pressure and make him react.”

To clarify, President Ahmadinejad will be appearing on CNN’s Larry King Live tonight (Wednesday).

I had not received any new information about the case since last hearing of the beginning of his trial in Tehran.

Not surprisingly, Twitter is abuzz with the news.

As a reminder, Derakhshan was arrested November 1, 2008 in Tehran and according to Radio Zamaneh, was accused of “cooperation with enemy states, propaganda against the Islamic regime, promoting anti-Revolutionary groups, insulting sanctities, launching and managing vulgar and obscene sites.” (I’m not sure what the final, formal charges are, if that even matters at this stage.)

I’m contacting Canadian authorities in Ottawa and Tehran and will post whatever I can.

In the past, Canadian officials have publicly said very little, other than that essentially their hands are tied as Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and that Derakhshan has been denied consular access.

Morozov, Haystack & Me

How Haystack Works

In recent days there has been a great bruhaha over Haystack, the anti-censorship software aimed to help Iranians inside of Iran.

On September 2, 2010, Evgeny Morozov, a journalist colleague of mine, and online columnist for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote a thought-provoking piece about Haystack. In it, he called into question how Haystack works and argued that in fact, Haystack may be dangerous to Iranians, given that no one knows precisely how Haystack works except its two creators Austin Heap and Dan Colascione. 

I’m afraid that what this has now turned into is people feeling personally attacked rather than discussing the merits of Haystack.

In gChats in recent days, I told Heap that Morozov raises a lot of good points concerning Haystack and indeed, Heap has responded to the charges on his blog. In fact, the two have since been in direct contact by email.

But Morozov isn’t the first to bring up these points. In fact, his questions are ones that have been raised months earlier privately by other smart tech folks that I know and respect, like Danny O’Brien (Center to Project Journalists, former EFF, Jacob Appelbaum (Tor) and Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center, Harvard ; Global Voices).

Essentially their question to Heap has been: why should people trust Haystack, when you won’t open up how it works? 

Heap has responded by essentially saying: no one should trust Haystack any more than you trust Psiphon, Freegate, Tor, or any other web anonymizer. 

In short, this is a question that has plagued Haystack since its inception. 

And frankly, this is a larger problem with reporters like me reporting on highly technical issues that we fundamentally don’t understand. I am not a cryptographer, nor a network engineer. That being said, I was present at one of the earliest demonstrations of Haystack held in San Francisco in the summer of 2009. Other programmers in the room, many of whom work for major Silicon Valley corporations, expressed no concern that this was an unbelievable or ridiculous project.

Now, when I’ve spoken with Heap, and reported on Haystack, I’m essentially taking Heap’s word that Haystack does what he says it does. I have no means of proving that it doesn’t, nor that it does. Even when Heap has demonstrated the software for me, I have no real means of confirming his claims.

The best I can do, as a journalist, is to try to temper my interest and enthusiasm for a project like Haystack with other voices. I’ve reported on the project a few times for PRI’s The World, for my forthcoming book, “The Internet of Elsewhere,” and most recently for Popular Science magazine. 

In two pieces for The World, I countered Heap’s claims with skepticism raised by Ali Reza Eshraghi, an Iranian journalist living in Washington DC, who said in my July 9 2009 report:

“I am not 100 percent sure that by using all these technologies, all of these softwares, that means that ok, I can be safe and secure in Internet. But yes, it will definitely be helpful for me, but also they are also trying to find out, you know, again new softwares, new technology, how to monitor again the browsers?”

More recently on April 13, 2010, I included comments from Prof. Nader Entessar of the University of South Alabama who said this about Haystack

“We shouldn’t look at it in terms of a major tool, even a very effective tool to pressure Iran to change its policies, let’s say in the nuclear arena or other areas.”

Now, in addition, I need to come clean about a personal connection that I’ve had to Haystack since its inception. 

In getting involved in this discussion and presumably having read a lot of what has been written about Haystack in the press so far, Morozov came across a piece that I penned for Popular Science magazine earlier this year. 

In a private email, Morozov wrote to me: “I feel that I need to ask you the following: what’s your relationship – if any – to Babak Siavoshy? If there is relationship, why wasn’t it pointed anywhere in the piece as a potential conflict of interest?”

Morozov is completely correct. I should have come forward a lot sooner regarding my personal connection to Haystack and sincerely apologize for not doing so earlier and in a more transparent way. 

Babak Siavoshy, Haystack’s managing director, is my first cousin and in fact I introduced him and Austin Heap back in the summer of 2009. I also introduced Heap to my first-cousin-once-removed, Karim Sadjadpour, who is a well-known Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Sadjadpour is also a member of CRC’s Board of Advisors. 

I definitely should have made this connection more public and probably even refrained from reporting directly on Haystack without disclosing this connection, or perhaps even refrained reporting on Haystack at all.

I have no excuse for not disclosing this potential conflict of interest earlier other than to say that I somehow justified it to myself that a member of my extended family, who was on the board of this organization that I was reporting about, whom I didn’t ever interview, was far enough away that it was ok. 

But upon further reflection, Morozov is completely right, I should have made this more clear to my listeners, readers, and editors for not coming forward sooner. I promise that such an oversight and mistake will never happen again. This potential conflict of interest, or even appearance of a conflict of interest, is something that violates journalistic ethics that I hold dear.

All of this said, I would like to close by making two final points:

1) Heap’s blog post, in which he criticized Morozov for not having spoken with him directly, was also spot on. I think that much of Morozov’s questions and concerns about Haystack could have been addressed directly to Heap rather than just being a blanket shot across the bow of Haystack. If I am at fault for not disclosing my connection to Siavoshy, Sadjadpour and Haystack, then Morozov is also at fault for not contacting directly Heap initially to address his questions about the project.

2) I have great respect both for Morozov and Heap, and consider them both as peers and also as friends. I’ve met socially with both of them multiple times on separate occasions and they are both very intelligent and nice guys.

While I am very interested in Haystack and its goals, I also think that Morozov has provided thoughtful skepticism that has influenced my own thinking about the role of technology and the Internet in promoting democracy around the world. When I first began work on my book, “The Internet of Elsewhere,” I initially had thought that I would write something about the “liberating effects of a wired world.” But both Zuckerman and Morozov have provided me with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I look forward to reading Morozov’s forthcoming book about the role of the Internet and democracy, which is due to come out later this year.

As I wrote on my blog back in May

As much as I love the Internet, it is no more capable of causing revolution than the telegraph was, as Tom Standage showed in his great book, The Victorian Internet.

The fact of the matter is that for all the talk of ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Iran — the status quo has been preserved. Khamenei is still doing his thing and Ahmedinejad is still doing his. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Islamic Republic is in danger of collapse anytime soon.

I generally agree with Evgeny, although I may not be as cynical as he is. The bottom line though, is that I feel like Fox Mulder on the X-Files: I want to believe that the Internet helps to build democracies, but as of now, I simply cannot.

Hossein “Hoder” Derakhshan’s trial begins in Tehran

After many months of nearly no information about the status of Hossein Derakhshan, various Iranian websites and his family are reporting that his trial began on Wednesday in Tehran.

Very little new information has been released beyond this fact, although I managed to get this quote via email from an source close to Derakhshan’s family:

“One trial session was held and although no family members were allowed in, but the family remains optimistic that no serious issues exist in his case. Plus, considering the fact that he has already served a long time in prison, most of which has been in solitary confinement, the family doesn’t expect a longer jail sentence. There are more court sessions to be held before the final verdict is out.”

I’ve contacted Canadian authorities to see what they have to say about this. Again, as a reminder, Derakhshan is a dual citizen of Iran and Canada.

More soon as this story develops.

Cyrus on: PRI’s The World (June 11, 2010)

Dear Friends,

My piece on the one-year anniversary of last year’s controversial election in Iran is airing today. In the piece, we hear from two young Iranians who talk about their frustration with what’s happened since June 12, 2009, and from Mohammed Sadeghi, the Iranian-German behind Mousavi’s Facebook page and from Golnaz Esfandiari, the Iranian-American reporter with Radio Free Europe in Prague.

It will be available on any of these stations (and their Internet streams):

NYC – 3 pm Eastern – WNYC – 820 AM – www.wnyc.org
Washington, DC – 8 pm Eastern – WAMU – 88.5 FM – www.wamu.org
Los Angeles – 12 pm Pacific – KPCC – 89.3 FM – www.kpcc.opg
Boston – 4 pm Eastern – WGBH – 89.7 FM – www.wgbh.org
San Francisco – 2 pm Pacific – KQED – 88.5 FM – www.kqed.org

You can also likely find it on your local public radio station, and The World’s site later in the day and also on my site if you miss the broadcast.

Also, don’t forget about The World’s Tech Podcast, hosted by my friend and colleague, Clark Boyd from The World’s tech desk at his new home in Brussels, Belgium.

Lemme know if you hear it!

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No, the Internet does not help build democracies

I don’t know if Barrett Sheridan wrote his Newsweek piece, “The Internet Helps Build Democracies” in response to or independent of Evgeny Morozov’s recent piece in Foreign Policy (Think Again: The Internet ; May/June 2010).

Still, it sort of amazes me that this techno-utopianism (or as Evgeny puts it, “iPod liberalism“) still persists, at least amongst smart, internationally-minded journalists like Barrett Sheridan. I mean, I get why popular opinion might come to this conclusion, and maybe even some well-intentioned policymakers. But seriously, Barrett, is this what you’re arguing? I’m sure Barrett is a good guy, and based on his LinkedIn profile he also seems like an intelligent guy (even if he did go to Stanford ; Go Bears!). But I can’t understand how he can seriously believe that the Internet can “build” democracies.

Let’s take this point by point, shall we?

Obama, meanwhile, has made Internet freedom a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and in a speech in Beijing late last year hailed “access to information” as a “universal right.”

While it is true that the State Department is making quite a splash with its 21st Century Statecraft initiative, I’m not sure that their approach is quite as simple as it might appear.

Alec Ross, one of the architects of the 21st Century Statecraft initiative himself has said:

While these examples from Iran are compelling to many around the globe, it’s important to make clear that just as these networks were used to organize — as well as to galvanize the outside world — they were also monitored and manipulated by government forces. The same openness that allowed sympathizers in, also let in those that sought to end the dissent and punish the dissenters.

So we clearly can’t take a sort of kumbaya approach to connection technologies. They can and are being used by our enemies, like al-Qaeda, and by authoritarian regimes. But I think that this, more than anything else, makes the case for our own aggressive engagement on global networks. We need to raise our own game. We can’t curl into the fetal position because bad guys are becoming smarter about how to use technology. It just creates an imperative for us to be smarter ourselves.

In other words, they’re well aware of the potential dangers that these tools create for dissidents and that they don’t believe that they suddenly can create “revolution” in places where we might want there to be. What Barrett is arguing strikes me as pretty freakin’ kumbaya.

He goes on: For instance, the use of Twitter by protesting youths in Moldova last year to create a flash mob in the capital city of Chisinau illustrated just how powerful an organizing and communicating tool the Internet is, even when limits are placed on it.

It’s been fairly well documented that this “Twitter Revolution” was a myth.

The short version, as Ethan Zuckerman put it: “My take on it at this point is that Twitter probably wasn’t all that important in organizing the demonstrations. Where I think they were enormously important is helping people, particularly people in the Moldovan Diaspora, keep up with the events in real time.”

Same logic goes for Iran, by the way.

To the techno–utopians, [cutting off the Internet in Burma] was a splash of ice-cold water to the face, suggesting that the government in power virtually always holds the trump card. But in one way the junta’s extreme reaction actually revealed the futility of its censorship. Their choice was a binary one: accept that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether.

First off, Burma is a country of 48 million people that has only about 100,000 Internet users, according to the CIA Factbook. That’s about 0.25 percent of the population. Presumably those that do have access to the Internet are mostly within the cadre of the junta anyway. Regardless, Burma hasn’t been offline since 2007. In fact, two weeks after it cut off the Internet — that same junta restored the existing limited access.

There isn’t a binary choice of accepting that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether. Lots of authoritarian regimes ranging from China to Cuba to Iran have done precisely that. While Iran has about 35 percent Internet penetration, it’s shown that it will use online tools to intimidate, arrest, and exile online dissidents and activists. Heck, Supreme Leader Khamenei is on Twitter. Millions of regular people in China and Iran are using the Internet every single day. They just experience a much more filtered, surveilled and censored Web than we do.

As Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith wrote in their book Who Controls The Internet? back in 2006:

What we have seen, time and time again, is that physical coercion by government – the hallmark of a traditional legal system – remains far more important than anyone expected. This may sound crude and ugly and even depressing. Yet at a fundamental level, it’s the most important thing missing from most predictions of where globalization will lead, and the most significant gap in predictions about the future shape of the Internet.

Barrett also writes that the Internet is, “in many places, less than 10 years old.” That’s just blantantly wrong, at least in many of the countries that he cites. The Internet first came to Russia in 1990, to China in 1994, to Cuba in 1991, and to Iran in 1993. To be fair, the Internet was introduced in Burma in 2000.

As much as I love the Internet, it is no more capable of causing revolution than the telegraph was, as Tom Standage showed in his great book, The Victorian Internet.

The fact of the matter is that for all the talk of Twitter Revolution in Iran — the status quo has been preserved. Khamenei is still doing his thing and Ahmedinejad is still doing his. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Islamic Republic is in danger of collapse anytime soon.

I generally agree with Evgeny, although I may not be as cynical as he is. The bottom line though, is that I feel like Fox Mulder on the X-Files: I want to believe that the Internet helps to build democracies, but as of now, I simply cannot.

Cyrus on: PRI’s The World (April 13, 2010)

Dear Friends,

My piece on the release of Haystack, the new anti-filtering software for use in Iran will be on today’s show.

It will be available on any of these stations (and their Internet streams):

NYC – 3 pm Eastern – WNYC – 820 AM – www.wnyc.org
Washington, DC – 8 pm Eastern – WAMU – 88.5 FM – www.wamu.org
Los Angeles – 12 pm Pacific – KPCC – 89.3 FM – www.kpcc.opg
Boston – 4 pm Eastern – WGBH – 89.7 FM – www.wgbh.org
San Francisco – 2 pm Pacific – KQED – 88.5 FM – www.kqed.org

You can also likely find it on your local public radio station, and The World’s site later in the day and also on my site if you miss the broadcast.

Also, don’t forget about The World’s Tech Podcast, hosted by my boss, Clark Boyd. It comes out every Friday.

Lemme know if you hear it!

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Remarks of President Obama Marking Nowruz (March 20, 2010)

For Immediate Release
March 20, 2010
Remarks of President Obama Marking Nowruz

Today, I want to extend my best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz in the United States and around the world. On this New Year’s celebration, friends and family have a unique opportunity to reflect on the year gone by; to celebrate their time together; and to share in their hopes for the future.

One year ago, I chose this occasion to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to offer a new chapter of engagement on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect. I did so with no illusions. For three decades, the United States and Iran have been alienated from one another. Iran’s leaders have sought their own legitimacy through hostility to America. And we continue to have serious differences on many issues.

I said, last year, that the choice for a better future was in the hands of Iran’s leaders. That remains true today. Together with the international community, the United States acknowledges your right to peaceful nuclear energy – we insist only that you adhere to the same responsibilities that apply to other nations. We are familiar with your grievances from the past – we have our own grievances as well, but we are prepared to move forward. We know what you’re against; now tell us what you’re for.

For reasons known only to them, the leaders of Iran have shown themselves unable to answer that question. You have refused good faith proposals from the international community. They have turned their backs on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians, and allow a great civilization to take its rightful place in the community of nations. Faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.

Last June, the world watched with admiration, as Iranians sought to exercise their universal right to be heard. But tragically, the aspirations of the Iranian people were also met with a clenched fist, as people marching silently were beaten with batons; political prisoners were rounded up and abused; absurd and false accusations were leveled against the United States and the West; and people everywhere were horrified by the video of a young woman killed in the street.

The United States does not meddle in Iran’s internal affairs. Our commitment – our responsibility – is to stand up for those rights that should be universal to all human beings. That includes the right to speak freely, to assemble without fear; the right to the equal administration of justice, and to express your views without facing retribution against you or your families.

I want the Iranian people to know what my country stands for. The United States believes in the dignity of every human being, and an international order that bends the arc of history in the direction of justice – a future where Iranians can exercise their rights, to participate fully in the global economy, and enrich the world through educational and cultural exchanges beyond Iran’s borders. That is the future that we seek. That is what America is for.

That is why, even as we continue to have differences with the Iranian government, we will sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people. For instance, by increasing opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities and to our efforts to ensure that Iranians can have access to the software and Internet technology that will enable them to communicate with each other, and with the world without fear of censorship.

Finally, let me be clear: we are working with the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable because they refuse to live up to their international obligations. But our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands. Indeed, over the course of the last year, it is the Iranian government that has chosen to isolate itself, and to choose a self-defeating focus on the past over a commitment to build a better future.

Last year, I quoted the words of the poet Saadi, who said: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.” I still believe that – I believe it with every fiber of my being. And even as we have differences, the Iranian government continues to have the choice to pursue a better future, and to meet its international responsibilities, while respecting the dignity and fundamental human rights of its own people.

Thank you. And Aid-e-Shoma Mobarak.

! عید شما مبارک

Given that we’re moving to Germany in five days, and didn’t set one up this year, I thought I’d share a photo of my 2007 haft-seen.

I’m lucky to be spending Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday with my brother, father, extended family and other longtime family friends down here in Los Angeles this year.

That said, I extend my wishes along with President Obama, Sen. John Kerry, and the U.S. House of Representatives in wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!

Omid Reza Mirsayafi died one year ago

On March 18, 2009, Omid Reza Mirsayafi died in a Tehran prison.

I reported on it at the time for PRI’s The World.

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Sadly, Mirsayafi’s reputation will now live on as becoming the first blogger in the world to die while in custody. Unfortunately the Islamic Republic of Iran has not only this “honor” of allowing an imprisoned blogger to die, but also is the first country in the world to jail a blogger — Sina Motalebi in 2003.

Details of Mirsayafi’s death are sketchy at best, even a year after his death. Iranian authorities maintain that he committed suicide after being allowed to overdose on sedatives. His family does not believe this theory, and Reporters Without Borders is calling for a new investigation.

Mirsayafi’s death remains a stark reminder as to the level of physical (and possibly lethal) power that authoritarian regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran retain.

As much as I want to believe that Mirsayafi’s blog and others like his can speak truth to power in Iran, and that the “Twitter Revolution” may bring about regime change, the fact of the matter is that the status quo has been preserved. Ahmadinejad is still in power. Khamenei’s office is still twittering.

Through this tragic example, as well as countless others, the Iranian government has shown that it is willing to beat, intimidate, jail, exile, and even let their own citizens die — and there’s not much that blogs, Twitter, or any other online tool can do to change that.

Cyrus on: TVO’s Search Engine (March 16, 2010)

I had the honor of being interviewed by Jesse Brown on his TVO show, “Search Engine“, to provide an update on the Treasury Department’s new rules regarding American tech companies exporting stuff to Iran (and Cuba and Sudan).

The interview that I recorded with Austin Heap was recorded on March 8, 2010 and was conducted by Jason Margolis for a piece that aired later that day.

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Here’s some related links, including the March 8, 2010 text from the Federal Register, the original text regarding license exemptions, and SourceForge’s freaking out about those laws in January 2010.

Audio is here.