Iran Cyber Dialogue & RightsCon

by Ali Bangi

This year, Iran Cyber Dialogue (ICD) was organized in collaboration with RightsCon. ICD comprised a series of private sessions on March 29, followed by public sessions as part of the RightsCon program. For those who weren’t able to join us, here’s a roundup of some of the key highlights.

Iran Cyber Dialogue Chatham House Discussions

This year’s ICD sessions delved into freedom of expression issues including online information controls, targeted phishing attacks, rapid response, and sanctions. Participants’ main takeaways were enriched, multidisciplinary solutions to human rights challenges; and potential opportunities related to technology – an understanding which will inform the development of better practical tools going forward.

At past ICDs the outcomes have been real, significant, and often profound – this year was no different.

We held several sessions on the information controls used during the recent parliamentary elections; and reviewed and analysed information control trends across several elections. ICD 2016 was marked by a larger representation from the broader Middle East and North Africa region – a group which shared invaluable best practices with the ICD community. The combined participation of policymakers and civil society groups helped clarify issues on sanctions and sanctions overcompliance in the context of a rich discussion about the impact of tech companies’ sanctions overcompliance on Iranians.

These sessions were held under the Chatham House Rule, which resulted in tangible outcomes by encouraging honest and open conversation. In any meeting that has invoked the Chatham House Rule, “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

The importance this open working style at ICD cannot be understated. The mutual commitment to the anonymity of all parties allowed for collaborative discussion. Participants shared their experiences dealing with targeted cyber attacks without hesitation, leading to discussions on rapid response tactics and methods to defend against such attacks. It was comforting to know that I was in a community that respected privacy and supported each other for the sake of the common goal of internet freedom.

ICD at RightsCon

Our collaboration with RightsCon brought a strong focus on Iran to this year’s conference. From March 30 to April 1, United For Iran, Small Media, Psiphon, IranWire, ASL19, and others led several exciting workshops and panels at RightsCon. Participants included key stakeholders working at the intersection of technology and human rights, including activists, professionals, and policymakers.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of issues faced by Iran and the West. While the sessions led by Western speakers largely centered on government surveillance and monitoring, Iranians are most affected by issues surrounding censorship. While concerns regarding surveillance are growing in Iran, critical internet freedom issues continue to stem from restricted access to information and state censorship.

My observations at RightsCon reflect the global reality. Since the Snowden revelations, the internet freedom debate in the West has focused mostly on surveillance and privacy, while censorship is dealt with like an issue of the past. In reality, it remains a major problem in China, Iran, and the Arab World.

In the aftermath of Snowden, Western attention and resources are mobilized towards the development of tools and policies to resist government surveillance. Reflective of this trend, in 2015 the UN established a new Special Rapporteur on Privacy dedicated to addressing surveillance and privacy. Similarly, programmers and software developers have increasingly released encrypted messaging apps to assuage Western citizens’ concerns about state surveillance.

Observing these differences made me appreciate more than ever the work of the ICD community that helps Iranians bypass censorship and gain access to information. For many outside the West, censorship is an ongoing challenge that we still need to work hard to combat. Western civil society groups play an important role in keeping the issue of censorship on the table at places like RightsCon, where policies related to internet freedom are discussed. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Access Now, along with international programs, have played an important role ensuring that the internet freedom issues of the Global South are not forgotten in North American or Western European forums.

By hosting ICD as a RightsCon satellite event and leading a number of panels and workshops during RightsCon, ASL19 provided a distinct dimension to the conference, and aided in keeping Iranian issues in the conversation. My understanding of internet freedom issues was expanded upon in my interactions with members of the community with different areas of expertise. Conferences like RightsCon and ICD facilitate the sharing of diverse experiences and best practices; discussions which proved invaluable in informing our understanding of human rights issues, and in elucidating potential technological solutions to advance them.

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