Firuzeh Mahmoudi is executive director of United for Iran, a nonprofit working to advance civil liberties in Iran and the home of IranCubator, which supports innovations for the country. Their newest product, Nahoft, is an encryption app that scrambles Farsi text into random words — effectively allowing Iranians to send disguised messages over any chat platform, provided the recipient also uses Nahoft to decipher the message.
What’s the role you see the Iranian diaspora playing in maintaining internet freedoms within the country?
When I could not go home to Iran, I had to ask myself ‘What can I do from outside?’. Over the years, I’ve learned that there are certain things we can do from outside that only those of us outside can do. We have capacity—we have an NGO we can go fundraise for, we have the time and resources to build an app like Nahoft. Whereas inside Iran, you’d get arrested so you don’t get resources for this kind of work. And we have the space to do this work without risking our personal security. Iranians are very tech savvy by necessity, but there just aren’t the resources for something like this.
Given that communication can be difficult, how do you develop the products at IranCubator?
We start by identifying areas where there are needs and then we go to community leaders and leading activists and survey them, ask them questions. That gives us a sense of what the priorities are. This is also how we’ve identified people who have submitted applications to IranCubator. Once we have the relationships, the question becomes whether a tech solution is really needed. From there we offer support in whatever way the applicant might need. Sometimes people have the skills to build a product, other times it might be an activist who knows what’s needed but might be a bit of a Luddite, and we help them figure out the scope of the app, the UI/UX, hire independent parties to do security audits to make sure each app is safe. We have a soft launch with every app, beginning with our own networks of activists in the country.
What are some of your concerns about the way the Protection Bill could change the internet in Iran?
Right now we already have our next set of apps in the works, so it may not affect what we do immediately, but it may shape what we look at in the future. If Iran moves towards internet shutdown, it’s a deal breaker all around for everyone—activism inside the country, family members trying to communicate during protests inside and outside, all of us trying to work on the outside. All of these things will be threatened.
There’s a four-month window after the law goes into effect where they can throttle before they outright block certain sites. Iranians are used to using proxies, but the real danger is normalizing this. [The government] has been talking about this for years, so people are not surprised, so it normalizes this kind of behavior and the move towards a China-style Intranet.
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