The Global Solution: Partnering for Internet Freedom Festival 2017

by Olivia Ito

ASL19 is partnering with Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) for their next festival that is happening (March 6-10, 2017). We sat down with both Ali Bangi (ASL19 Director) and Pepe Borras (Internet Freedom Festival Director at IREX) to talk about why we’re partnering and what our focus is for the next year.

Why did ASL19 and IFF partner in the past? What are we collectively supporting?

Ali: I was really tired of panels that were held in the Western world. Iran, China, Syria, and sometimes Cuba would be on the same panels with a Western moderator and audience. They would talk about how the state of the internet was so terrible in those regions and how we can feel good about how things are in the US or UK and then call it a day. For a very long time, our participation and cause were used by people of the West to talk about us and never themselves.

The opportunity to partner with IFF was a unique one. The festival works to ensure that there is an equal representation of issues (e.g. privacy and surveillance issues in all countries). There is a very diverse crowd - Latin America, Central Asia, North America, Western Europe, etc. The conversations aren’t based on let’s feel good about ourselves - it’s real, global, and down-to-earth. Every cause is paid attention to and is represented by the community it serves. I really like the vibe of IFF and don't come out of it feeling used.

I also like that it’s a “let’s sit down together and really collaborate” kind of event. Things that are discussed elsewhere are followed up at IFF. Having a week-long event allows you to embark on a serious journey, not get distracted, and launch initiatives/get things done. We need a space like this - things are so interconnected that it's important we meet people from all over the world and spend time working with them.

Pepe: For the IFF, it's very important to have a diverse regional representation - to get people who have experience in specific regions to be present in the festival. ASL19, is the reference for Iran, so it's very important to have their voice. It’s not only expertise that they bring, but also the local networks that trust ASL19 that have a presence at the festival whether that be through having their interests represented or actually coming to the event. It’s important that the festival is hands-on and goal-oriented, multi-disciplinary (not just because it’s a buzzword), and multi-cultural. We’re connecting and bridging all the islands.

What are we focusing on for next year?

Ali: We became collectively better at holding governments accountable when they start to assert too much power or try to control the internet. However, what’s shifted is that places like Iran seem to be delegating to private citizen hacking groups or hackers so it's hard for us to prove their relationships to government. We believe that they are government-sponsored because they are too well-funded to be a community initiative.

Currently, a lot of internet governance policies looks at how governments are dealing with civil society, but now we have a new problem which is that the attackers are not state actors. While the policy work with governments is still very important and ongoing, we need to start looking at how to deal with non-state hackers that are attacking civil society, journalists, etc. on behalf of the government. There’s been a lot of hacking attacks recently using a variety of methods including social engineering. As a result, there is more focus in our community around prevention, rapid response, and technical knowledge around how to protect ourselves.

The other two issues I’d say we’re tracking are countries like Iran forcing popular messaging apps to move their data centres into Iran (and the impact of that) and the importance and battle for end-to-end encryption everywhere.

Pepe: Our focus areas are to identify what the community needs and then actively improving in those areas. From last year, there is a list of areas that have been identified. Some of them are:

  • How can we create more sustainability in the ecosystem?
  • How can we improve the design of spaces to make them more inclusive and foster positive collaborations?
  • How can we improve inclusive spaces and cultivate an atmosphere of trust against discrimination and harassment?
  • How do we diversify the voices in the conversations?
  • How can we attract new groups with fundamental skills (e.g. creatives, communication professionals, etc.)?
  • How can we strengthen the network and share common goals?

This year, the themes of the festival concentrate on these focus areas. We’ve also created a diversity and inclusion fund this year to help fund participants, who would otherwise not be able to attend, to come to IFF.

What benefits do we see to the partnership between ASL19 and IFF?

Ali: We're happy to be invited and partner to keep Iranian civil society issues valid and alive in the larger community. Last year, we did a full day working group with major tech companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) and civil society around rapid response issues. Having direct access to these companies helped us respond more effectively and is a great example of the benefits of partnering with IFF.

Pepe: I like to think of IFF as a bonfire. The community comes together to have a very honest conversation together - laying down all that we are doing in the next year. ASL19 should be a part of the conversation. It’s not a one-sided thing. We need to hear your voices in order to receive and give as a community. The threat level and complexity of the adverse areas is increasing and growing. Now more than ever, we need to organize and collaborate.

The funny thing about collaboration is that everyone is talking about it, but it seems that not many are actually collaborating. We’re trying to build a platform for collaboration. There is no one pill or vaccine that’s going to heal every problem. What we need is actually a larger group that is having one-on-one conversations with each other at the same time; trying to address the problems with the variety of solutions needed. It’s an incredibly complex thing, but it's the only way forward.