If those viral clips mean more to Reza than to the average American, it’s probably because he has to work so much harder to see them. YouTube is blocked in Iran. The TED site isn’t, but Iran’s trickling internet speeds make its videos virtually unwatchable anyway. So every couple of days, Reza plugs a USB drive into his satellite TV’s set-top box receiver and changes the channel to a certain unchanging green and white screen that shows only fixed text instructions. He sets the receiver to record to the USB. Then a few hours later he takes the resulting MPEG file on the USB over to his computer, where he decodes it with a piece of software called Toosheh. The result, each time, is more than a gigabyte of compressed, fresh digital contraband pulled directly from space, past both Iran’s infrastructure bottlenecks and its draconian censors.
Harnessing Satellite TV
Last month, a Los Angeles-based group of eight Iranian and American activists that calls itself Net Freedom Pioneers officially launched Toosheh, that free anti-censorship system. Toosheh, Farsi for “knapsack” or “bundle,” is designed to allow Iranians to use their ubiquitous TV satellite dishes as an alternative to the country’s underdeveloped and highly censored internet, where a government body called the Supreme Council for Cyberspace blocks everything from “anti-Islamic” sites to news coverage of opposition political groups. By broadcasting on its own satellite TV channel and distributing a piece of Windows desktop software that can decode that satellite video stream, the Toosheh project sends thousands of Iranians a daily digital bundle of news articles, videos, and audio—everything from Persian music videos to critical news coverage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. “When they use our software all the content disguised in the video file is extracted and opens in a folder for them,” says Mehdi Yahyanejad, the founder of Net Freedom Pioneers as well as Balatarin, a Reddit-like social news site in Persian. “It can’t be censored…it comes from the sky. Our users just get a big folder of content, and there’s no trace of it on the internet.”
Toosheh’s software takes advantage of Iran’s strange and contradictory digital infrastructure. The Iranian internet is not only repressed, but due to a lack of infrastructure and purposeful government throttling, slow and expensive—a gigabyte of data costs around $1 in a country where many people make only hundreds of dollars a month. Censorship circumvention tools like VPNs, Tor, and Psiphon are common, but caught in a cat-and-mouse race with the government’s attempts to block them. Satellite TV, however, has become common in even small villages, with as many as 70 percent of Iranian households owning a satellite dish. It’s even used by the government to beam in state-run channels.
So the Toosheh project last year began renting the use of a satellite run by Yahsat, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, to send its stream of encoded files. The collection, converted into a kind of MPEG known as a transport stream or “.ts” file, is sent in a repeating one-hour loop so that downloaders can start recording at any point in the day to receive it. And Yahsat’s satellite hovers over the Middle East, making it harder for the Iranian government to jam the satellite’s signal as it’s broadcast directly down to Iranian dishes. “It breaks the propaganda, all the information Iranians receive from hardliner media and state TV,” says Amir Rashidi, a researcher for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “It’s a huge step to change the society, to ask the government for more freedom.”
A Curated Glimpse Past the Censors
Toosheh seems to be catching on. Since Net Freedom Pioneers began testing Toosheh last October, its desktop app was downloaded more than 56,000 times. Authorities, by contrast, don’t seem to appreciate the project: Toosheh’s website has already been blocked for more than a month in Iran. (Luckily Iranians only need to access it once via Tor or another proxy tool to download Toosheh’s decoder program.) But its satellite signal has remained unblocked, and Yahyanejad argues it may be beyond the government’s means to effectively jam it.
Even so, it’s worth noting that the group’s daily care package of digital files isn’t exactly a replacement for the freedom of the open internet. Instead, it’s a carefully assembled package of files, curated by Net Freedom Pioneers’ team of five Iranian immigrant activists who say they aim to offer a mix of entertainment, education and human-rights focused material. Yahyanejad says he’s received feedback on their choices via email, Twitter and Facebook messages from proxy-using Iranians. Some of the most popular files, he’s learned, have been recordings of Iranian music from before the country’s 1979 revolution, and the podcast of the political satirist Kambiz Hosseini, whose work Jon Stewart has compared to the Daily Show. Sometimes the content is more explicitly educational, like English-language learning videos, a graphic novel in Farsi designed to teach readers about sexual health and a video game that includes lessons on Iranian constitutional rights.
Every day’s bundle includes a collection of news article PDFs, too. And Toosheh’s satellite also broadcasts a collection of censorship circumvention tools like Tor, Psiphon, and Lantern, offering a new detour around the government attempts to block access to those programs. “I think the idea behind Toosheh is brilliant,” writes Nima Fatemi, an Iranian independent researcher who works closely with the Tor Project, in an email to WIRED. “Using this method you can download Tor Browser, our video explaining Tor, and [the Tor-based operating system] Tails within minutes—something that’s currently impossible with the internet speed in Iran.”
A Lifelong Obsession
Yahyanejad says he was driven to create Toosheh after his for-profit news and social media site Balatarin was blocked in Iran a decade ago. That site remains popular among Iranians capable of using proxies and VPNs to get around its web filtering, but has also faced punishing cyberattacks from the regime, beginning after the 2009 protests surrounding the suspicious landslide re-election of far-right politician Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For Yahyanejad, satellites and the possibility of using them to access foreign information have been a lifelong obsession. As a teenager growing up in Tehran in the early 1990s, he attempted to build a satellite dish out of metal mesh when he couldn’t find one of the devices on the black market. (He never got his own DIY dish to work.) Years later, he became a post-doctoral researcher in bio-informatics at Stanford in 2004, and struck upon the idea of using those same satellite dishes as an alternative to Iran’s besieged internet. But he says it took another decade before Iranian satellite receiver boxes began to have use USB ports, making Toosheh’s scheme possible. Starting around 2012, he began assembling a developer team to finally enact the idea, and they came up with the method of compressing the data into the mpeg transport stream format. “We built [the software] from scratch. As far as we know, no one else has done this before,” says Yahyanejad.