The Ingenious Way Iranians Are Using Satellite TV to Beam in Banned Data

Andy Greenberg in Wired:

GettyImages-5081285201-1024x512Reza, a 20-something mechanical engineer working at an automotive parts factory in the northeastern Iranian city of Sabzevar, takes his web videos seriously. He’s watched theTED talk of amputee snowboarding champion Amy Purdy“over and over again.” The YouTube videos of Boston Dynamics robots Big Dog and Cheetah, which most of us find creepy, he describes as inspirational. “I was mesmerized by those videos,” he writes in an email, asking that WIRED not use his real name. “I wonder what would happen if I had the chance to watch [them] when I was a teenager. I might have studied harder in college.” 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.

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 anddistributing 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.”

More here.